George Calder Eichbaum , Lily Tomlin, and Genre Interpretation

George Calder Eichbaum, whose work is often mistaken for George Caleb Bingham and an artist for whom I have advocated, finally received his due at Christie’s American Art auction on November 19, 2014. His genre work, The Candidatesigned and dated 1890, sold for $37,500 (with buyer’s premium). Here’s a zoomable image. (Love zoomable images).Even if not signed, the rectangular highlight on the forward-facing figure, found in many Eichbaum portraits, would be a clue to the artist’s identity.

Lily Tomlin as Ernestine

Lily Tomlin as Ernestine

Obsessed as I am with tying every piece of available information to solid fact, and literal-minded by nature, I do not often venture into interpretations.  The fun of genre works is that they are, by their nature, filled with symbols that relate a story to the viewer, usually a topical tale. But interpretation is a tricky business. Slang, idioms, jokes and trends, whether cultural or political, fade quickly.  Some symbols persist in collective memory, but most are remembered for only a generation. With the death of a generation, what was once apparent in a genre work falls into oblivion.  Case in point: on a personal site, I recently posted an image of Lily Tomlin as Ernestine on the television show Saturday Night Live from 1976..  Just the image can bring a smile to people of my generation and outright laughter to recollected skit lines: “One ringy-dingy. Two ringy-dingys,” “Is this the party to whom I am speaking?” “We’ve lost Peoria,” and “We don’t care.  We don’t have to.  We’re the phone company.” But how many people who were not old enough to stay up late on a Saturday night in 1976 will comprehend the image after we’re gone?  Such an image may be in The Candidate; its allusions long forgotten.

From more than a century into the future, in G. C. Eichbaum’s The Candidate, we see the eternal criticisms of a politician in the empty hat and the empty chair. We see the figure on the right, who stares wryly at the viewer, cleaning his glasses.  Ah, there’s meaning there. Zooming to the pictures on the wall, the lower is a print of Cupid and Psyche by Francois Gerard (1770 – 1837). Above it, is a print of a horse race.  Again, obvious.  And the significance of the umbrella by the door? What are we not seeing that the people of 1890 saw? My friend Joan Stack, art curator at the State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia, more imaginative than I, admirably works to surface forgotten news, trends and idioms to offer new interpretations for George Caleb Bingham genre works.

Back to the original subject — Congratulations to George Calder Eichbaum on finally receiving deserved recognition.

About Patricia Moss

Patricia Moss is an art historian, or art detective if you will, who solves mysteries of 19th century American portraits. She located nearly 70 of Bingham’s lost portraits, a feat acknowledged by the Smithsonian’s Research and Scholar’s Center. From expertise with portraits of George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879), she developed skills that evolved into a comprehensive system based on the scientific method that conforms to the legal and ethical standards of art authentication. Moss served as a guest curator for the Bingham Bicentennial Exhibit, “Steamboats to Steam Engines: George Caleb Bingham’s Missouri: 1819-1879,” (March 10-September 8, 2011) at the Truman Presidential Museum and curated the opening exhibition, “George Caleb Bingham: Witness to History,” (September 2013 –), Jackson County Art Museum, Independence, Missouri. She is also the principal researcher for Fine Art Investigations.
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