During a trip to Missouri in 2011, the owners of the George Caleb Bingham portrait Matilda Donohoe (Mrs. Robert Aull), that I had located her several years before, invited me to their home. I first saw the painting in a black and white photograph in E. Maurice Bloch’s Bingham Catalogue Raisonne. As I worked with the owners, the conservator, a friend, sent me a color photograph. She came to life.
But, just as a recording cannot reproduce the power of live music, a photograph cannot capture the full beauty of a great painting. When I saw “Aunt Matilda,” as the gracious owners call her, “in the paint”…oh my, she was lovely. Moreover, the portrait is a significant piece of history and art history.
George Caleb Bingham and Matilda Donohoe were both Virginia natives. Matilda was born in Fairfax County, Virginia, on April 25, 1811, a month after Bingham’s birth in Augusta County on March 20, 1811. Their families moved to Missouri about the same time. The Donohoes arrived in St. Louis around 1818; the Binghams settled in Franklin in 1819. In 1820, Matilda’s father, Stephen Donohoe, was one of the 13 founders of the town of Glasgow, 20 miles north of Franklin.
Matilda was 24 when she married Robert Aull, 27, on June 24, 1835. After the wedding, Matilda moved to her husband’s home in Lexington, Missouri. Aull was one of three brothers associated with the Santa Fe trade. They owned a chain of stores in Liberty, Richmond, Lexington, and Independence, Missouri. In history, the names of Robert, John, and James Aull intersected with Josiah Gregg, author of Commerce of the Prairies, and with William Waddell and William Russell of the Pony Express.
On April 14, 1836, Bingham married Elizabeth Hutchison. They traveled to St. Louis and then downriver to Natchez, Mississippi, where their son, Isaac Newton Bingham, was born on March 26, 1837. Later in the spring, as temperatures in Mississippi rose, wealthy art patrons who provided work for artists left their winter homes for their more northerly residences. The young Bingham family left, too. In July, 1837, Bingham purchased land in Arrow Rock where he built a home for his family.
Payment for the portrait of Matilda Aull may have helped pay for building materials for the Binghams’ home in Arrow Rock. Matilda Aull’s low-cut dress indicates her portrait was painted in the heat of a Missouri summer. Or, Bingham may have portrayed her the following summer. In her three-quarter pose, she is awash in sunlight. She is the literal picture of the beautiful wife of a successful Santa Fe trader. A mantilla drapes her shoulders; a tortoise shell comb adorns her hair. Her earrings, so unlike anything seen in other portraits from the period, may well have been a gift of Spanish gold from her husband. Historian William Patrick O’Brien used an image of the painting in his acclaimed book, Merchants of Independence. Bingham also painted portraits of Matilda’s older sister Emma Donohoe (Mrs. Thomas Cockerill) and her husband, Dr. Thomas Cockerill, one of Glasgow’s first physicians and the founder of the town’s first drugstore.These two portraits now belong to the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (If you click the links to the Gilcrease Museum’s website, you will also have the opportunity to view Bingham’s portrait of Daniel Webster and a fine an example of his landscape paintings.)
In 1839, on an unrecorded date, Matilda gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth. By December 29, 1839, Matilda was dead. She was 27. Without her mother, baby Elizabeth died two weeks later on January 13, 1840. Robert Aull married again, had two children, outlived his brothers, and died in Austin, Texas, December 4, 1878, at the age of 71. His love for his first wife is immortalized in her portrait. Immortalized, too, in this outstanding example of the artistry of the young by George Caleb Bingham, is evidence of Spanish-Mexican trade in antebellum Missouri. The portrait, Matilda Donohoe (Mrs. Robert Aull) is a treasure of art and history.