The stories behind the portraits of George Caleb Bingham begin with Sallie Rodes Rollins, my favorite of all Bingham portrait subjects. She was born as Sarah Harris Rodes on 7 June 1787, in Madison County, Kentucky, into a wealthy family with tidewater Virginia roots. On 18 April 1811 she married a self-made man, Dr. Anthony Wayne Rollins (1783-1845). A year and a day later, their first child, James Sidney Rollins (1812-1888), was born. James would become the “warmest personal friend” and patron of artist George Caleb Bingham Sallie and Anthony Rollins had five more children together. Dr. Rollins’ medical practice thrived. He invested in real estate wisely. Their two-story brick Federal-style home in Richmond, Kentucky, still stands as the Irvinton House Museum and the headquarters for Richmond Tourism.
In 1830, the Rollins family moved to Boone County, Missouri. There Dr. Rollins created one of the largest plantations in the region, Richland, and become one of the state’s wealthiest men. Bingham and the younger Rollins met in Columbia, Missouri, when George was a cabinetmaker’s apprentice and James, a law student. The Rollins home was not far from the city and it is safe to presume Bingham spent time there. To say the Rollins family was nearly a second family to him may be too presumptuous, yet there was an unmistakable fondness. Bingham painted Sallie four times, her husband three times, and their eldest son six times. He is also known to have painted daughters Eliza and Sarah.
Before his death on 9 October 1845, Dr. Anthony Wayne Rollins, wrote:
Having felt the great disadvantages of poverty in the acquisition of my own education, it is my will that my executors…raise the sum of $10,000 by the sale of lands, which sum… I desire may be set aside for the education of poor and indigent youths of Boone County, male and female, as are unable to educate themselves.
“And female” at a time when women were barely more than possessions – what would cause an antebellum man to include such a stipulation in his will? How could his perception of women have been so far ahead of his time? Ultimately, Sallie is responsible. To elicit such respect, she must have been kind and warm as well as intelligent and educated. Those characteristics show in Bingham’s 1838 portrait of her. A remarkable woman; a remarkable portrait.