James Sidney Rollins was George Caleb Bingham‘s “warmest personal friend.” This re-discovered Bingham portrait descended in the Rollins family to a great-granddaughter who had always been told it was the work of an unknown artist. She wanted the people of Missouri to have it. When the painting arrived in the Midwest, I immediately recognized the artist as George Caleb Bingham. Other experts and conservators all concurred. But, a question remained: when it was painted?
Men’s clothing lends itself particularly well to dating because then, as now, successful men paid careful attention to the latest styles and widths of collar, neck cloth, and, “turn of the collar.” Dating the portrait was made easier when staff at the State Historical Society of Missouri provided an image of a daguerreotype of Major Rollins, dated circa 1855. The most striking difference between the daguerreotype and the painting is beard length. Another is the gold pocket watch. The two images contain many similarities. The subject’s hair is still dark without the grey of aging. Hair curls above the ear. The suit is similar: single-breasted with wide collar. In the painting, the upper lapel of the notched collar appears to be of a richer fabric, perhaps velvet. Both daguerreotype and painting show comparable waistcoat cut and collar height, each un-turned. Only the width of the neck cloth can be seen in the painting; the subject’s beard obscures the neck cloth.
Due to the length of the beard, I thought at first that the daguerreotype and oil painting were from two different periods, but clothing styles indicate a comparable time frame and members of the gender more familiar with beard growth informed me that the difference in beard length could be a matter of less than six months. The heavier fabric on the upper lapel in the painting suggests a portrait painted in cold weather. Bingham was known to have painted Rollins’ portrait in 1834, 1845, and 1871, but no one seemed to notice the large gap between 1845 and 1871. This portrait can be dated late autumn, 1855 or winter 1856 through an existing daguerreotype taken in May 1855. The date of 1855/1856 fills the gap in Bingham’s depictions of his best friend.
The portrait of the James Sidney Rollins, Father of the University of Missouri, is now in its home state where, as his descendant desired, the people of Missouri can view and appreciate it.
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