The Inspiration…can scarcely be overestimated

A friend recently alerted us that a bookseller requested a “Bingham expert.” When we replied, we found the bookseller had found the signature, “Geo. Bingham” in an inscription in James Orton’s The Proverbialist and the Poet, published in 1853 by E. H. Butler & Company, Philadelphia. The signature appeared to be that of George Caleb Bingham. But, of course, we had to do due diligence. The question took us on an adventure.

George Caleb Bingham Signature

George Caleb Bingham Signature
James Orton, The Proverbialist and the Poet, 1853

James Orton, The Proverbialist and the Poet, 1853

The book was dedicated to Mrs. E. C. Brainard of Cleveland, Ohio, and dated Dec. 25, 1853. First we checked our Bingham chronology:

January and February – in St. Louis; 10 March – travels to New Orleans and Kentucky to exhibit and to sell subscriptions for prints of The County Election; 15 September – travels to New York and then Philadelphia to direct John Sartain’s engraving of The County Election; 30 September, travels to New York, views the Crystal Palace exhibit; then travels to Philadelphia where he stays through the winter to work with Sartain.

 

Proverbialist and the Poet, 1853, Frontispiece by John Sinclair

Proverbialist and the Poet, 1853, Frontispiece by John Sinclair

Being in Cleveland for Christmas was not out of the question. But when we checked letters in “But I Forget That I am a Painter and Not a Politician”: The Letters of George Caleb Bingham[1], we found Bingham wrote from Philadelphia, December 12, 1853, and December 26, 1853. He could not have been in Cleveland for Christmas. He still could have sent a gift, but why? A little genealogical sleuthing revealed that Mrs. E.C. Brainard was Emily Catherine Mould, wife of Silas Brainard. Silas’ mother’s maiden name was Fannie Bingham. Genealogical records for the Bingham family before 1800 are scant and muddled, but Silas and George were probably distantly related, possibly second cousins.[2] 

 

John Sartain Engraving in the Proverbialist and the Poet, 1853

John Sartain Engraving in the Proverbialist and the Poet, 1853

Coincidentally, we were reviewing E. Maurice Bloch’s early biography of Bingham and came across a passage on gift books, “The inspiration afforded the artist through the engraved plates that appeared in these elaborate publications can scarcely be overestimated.”[3] As art historians and not rare book collectors, we were not familiar with gift books. We learned they were compilations of prose and poetry interspersed with engraved art works that were popular in the United States beginning about 1825 through the antebellum years. The Proverbialist and the Poet has engravings by John Sartain (1808-1897), with whom Bingham was working at the time, and frontispiece and title page by one of the first engravers who worked with chromolithography, John Sinclair (1805-1881).

The book is sold now, but on this adventure we learned a detail of Bingham’s every day life and of antebellum culture.  We also became acquainted with the bookseller and found him helpful, hard-working, and honest.  We recommend Chagrin Watershed Books

Patricia Moss

[1] The State Historical Society of Missouri and Friends of Arrow Rock, Inc., 2011

[2] Emily Catherine Mould (1822-aft 1900), wife of Silas Brainard (1814-1871). Silas’ mother’s maiden name was Fannie Bingham (1790-1835)

[3] E. Maurice Bloch, George Caleb Bingham: The Evolution of an Artist, (University of California Press, 1967), 39

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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