The Missouri Frontier
What would it have been like to be a talented young artist on the frontier of the United States in central Missouri in the 1820s with no art teacher, no pencils, no paints, no brushes? I try to imagine the young George Caleb Bingham with a slate and chalk or paper and an ink pen. He was not unlike thousands of artists throughout history. Even if a person with artistic aptitude could cobble together the tools of the artistic trade – for artists were sometimes thought of as a mixture of craftsman and magician fooling people with likeness – how was an artist to earn a living? That Bingham seriously considered becoming a lawyer or a preacher makes sense when one considers how difficult was the life of a frontier artist. Yet, Bingham had the talent, and even more, he had ambition.
First, he painted portraits of everyone who could afford to pay him in his hometown of Arrow Rock in central Missouri’s Boonslick. Then he painted those who could afford him in nearby towns such as Glasgow (Chariton), Boonville (Booneville), and Fayette (Lafayette). Eventually, to find still more customers, he decided to travel still further west where no portrait artists had gone before. One could count a Karl Bodmer, Alfred Jacob Miller, Titian Peale, or George Catlin, but they were paid expedition employees while Bingham was a self-employed entrepreneur – but a smart one. Knowing that the faster he painted portraits, the more money he would earn, before beginning his journey, he prepared the canvases and painted the background. On some of the canvases he painted black suits, white cravats, and black neck cloths; on others, black dresses. He filled a cart with the rolled canvases that needed only faces and set off west to Liberty, Missouri, near the western border of the state.
From his outfitting store on the town square in Liberty, Missouri, merchant John Wilson was busy selling goods to travelers on the Santa Fe Trail when the young artist approached him. Bingham pulled a cart full of his pre-painted canvases. When Bingham asked Wilson if he could paint his portrait, Wilson answered, “Hell, no, I’m too busy.” But he added, “Go out to the house and paint the two old girls. My mother lives with us, and my mother-in-law is visiting. I’ll have a boy run ahead to tell my wife to feed you.” The “two girls” were Wilson’s mother, Mary Sedwick (Mrs. William Wilson) (1775-1849) and his mother-in-law, Margaret Foreman (Mrs. James Strode) (1778-1857).
Similar stories of pre-painted canvases exist for other artists in other states. Some art historians dismiss the idea of pre-painted canvases as a myth. That is their opinion. In this case, John Wilson told the story to his granddaughter who told her granddaughter. That now-deceased descendant of the “two girls,” a woman of impeccable memory and honesty, a retired chief executive officer of several charitable organizations, repeated the facts to me. I have no reason to doubt her and the paintings themselves reinforce the veracity of the statement.
Today the sitters look stiff – and somewhat pre-fabricated – yet they typify American Primitivist portraiture. They are almost two-dimensional. The self-taught artist had not yet mastered perspective. His use of light and shadow was rudimentary. Yet, his entrepreneurship is apparent in the flattering portraits of the two women, 60 and 57 years of age. Bingham had already developed elements of his life-long style. The women were firmly fixed in space. They had a substantive quality. The women looked directly and honestly at the viewer. Bingham both flattered and exposed them. To the best of his ability with a palette of a few house paints, he created real people.
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