George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879) painted four portraits of Sallie Rodes Rollins (1787-1856), the mother of his best friend, James Sidney Rollins, and an amazing woman in her own right. See Sarah Rodes Rollins for biography.
The first portrait, painted in 1834, is one of Bingham’s earliest. Sallie wore an understated version of the mid-1830s Romantic fashions of decorative horizontal styles. With its harsh light and hard lines, the painting exemplifies American Primitivism. Yet even as an untrained artist with few paints available to him, Bingham relieved the portrait’s planar quality with sculptural depth and appealing colors to create a psychologically engaging painting.
The second portrait, painted in 1837, is one from the “Golden Age” of Bingham portraiture. The artist had not yet lost the refreshing innocence of an untrained painter, but he had enough formal instruction to handle subtleties of modeling. Sallie wore a collar over a pelerine – a short cape with pointed front – over gigot sleeves. By 1837, Bingham could portray female subjects with delicate femininity, yet he chose to depict Sallie as a strong, determined woman. He used soft colors and careful shadowing, giving his subject an expression of gentility and kindness. A color image of this work had never been reproduced before its publication here. I thank the owners for their generosity of spirit.
In the third and fourth portraits, both ovals, Bingham posed Sallie facing forward. Bingham biographer and author of the definitive Catalogue Raisonné, E. Maurice Bloch, dated both portraits “after 1850.” In each one Sallie wears an identical brooch on a dark dress with a simple collar, her hairstyle hidden by a plain bonnet. Although the classic style gives few clues to determine the date, the small bonnet trimmed with three-quarter lace in the third portrait is representative of a style prevalent in the late 1840s or early 1850s. The collar and hat were of simple yet elegant transparent fabric. From the change in the set of Sallie’s mouth, she had succumbed to the toothless plight of women of the era for whom sugar was plentiful. For a woman in her 60s, Bingham painted Sallie honestly yet flatteringly. He minimized wrinkles and softened her features with color. Shadows at the edges of her firmly closed mouth hint at a smile. She is one of the richest women in the state of Missouri but in her demeanor there is no arrogance.
In the fourth portrait, Sallie’s collar and hat appear to be of tailored and tatted cotton. Cotton accessories were especially fashionable in the mid-1850s. Bingham probably painted this portrait before May 1856, when he and his family began traveling east on their way to Europe. Sallie died soon after on July 12, 1856. Until now, no image of this portrait has ever been published. I thank the owner for allowing me to photograph it. Some of Bingham’s original brushwork has disappeared through restoration, however, his composition is unmistakable. The artist challenged the viewer to see the woman, nearly 70 years old, as he had always seen her: intelligent, caring, and resolute.