A George Caleb Bingham painting for the Boonville Juvenile Clay Club Banner, The Mill Boy, 1844, is both a genre work and a portrait. As a banner/ genre work, the painting symbolically rallied delegates at the Whig convention. Imagine a political convention with hand-painted artworks paraded through the aisles. As a portrait, Bingham depicted Whig leader Henry Clay as the “Mill Boy of the Slashes.” In Virginia’s swampy lowlands, the “slashes,” neighbors remembered young Clay as a barefoot fatherless boy on horseback riding to the mill with a sack of corn for a saddle.
Clay eventually became a lawyer and in 1798 moved to Lexington, Kentucky. Dr. Anthony Wayne Rollins arrived in Lexington not long after and the two self-made men became life-long friends. Some art historians have pondered why Bingham became a Whig. As he began his career Bingham spent much time at the A. W. Rollins home. He would have heard Dr. Rollins tell personal anecdotes about Clay. I believe Dr Rollins’ relationship with both Clay and with Bingham cannot be over-estimated in the artist’s choice of political party.
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