The most popular item in the exhibition, George Caleb Bingham: Witness to History, at the Jackson County Art Museum in the Truman Courthouse in Independence, Missouri, was the original brooch worn by Mary Snell (Mrs. Priestly Haggin McBride.) The brooch is in the display case on the table underneath her portrait. It is a tiny little thing, too small for a good photograph. You’ll have to come see it. The room in which the portrait hangs is the smallest in the Jackson County Art Museum, but during the opening tours, nearly always someone stood in front of the table, glancing back and forth between the box and the painting.
It was a foreman with the courthouse remodel crew who had the idea to display the brooch on a vintage table. There were plenty of tables in storage from the courthouse’s original 1933 furniture, but in the rush in the final weeks before the grand re-opening, no one had time to go over to Surplus and search for the proper table. As time was running out, Steve Noll, executive director of the Jackson County Historical Society, came to the rescue. He found a vintage table of the perfect size with gold trim on the top surface that framed the display box.
Of course, people appreciated the portrait itself. When I looked at it carefully, I realized that George Caleb Bingham painted it a bit earlier than 1837/1838 as E. Maurice Bloch stated. The reason is that the voluminous gigot sleeves and the delicate pelerine over Mrs. McBride’s dress match fashion plates of 1836 more than fashion plates of 1837 when the width of the sleeves diminished and the pelerine all but disappeared. Even on the frontier as soon as fashion publications arrived, a woman of means, such as Mary McBride, directed her seamstress to create copies of the latest styles. Adjusting the date to account for slow mail delivery, the dress would have been made no later than 1837, which date the painting 1836/1837.
By 1836, Bingham was working from a studio in St. Louis and viewing the work of other artists. He saw paintings in the homes of the city’s residents and the European decorations at the new cathedral. These observations, and probably some training, enabled him to paint the 31-year-old Mary McBride with soft lines and life-like skin tones. Note the attention to detail in the links of the chain she wears around her neck and Bingham’s skill in creating a transparent blue ribbon over a white collar ruff. This new dating speaks to the artist’s determined perseverance to gain eminence with his art.
Mary Snell was born February 13, 1805, in Scott County, Kentucky. By 1827 she lived in Boone County, Missouri, because marriage records show she wed Priestly Haggin McBride there on February 6. She was 22 when she wed Priestly Haggin McBride (1796-1869), nine years her elder. Her younger sister Julia Ann (1810-1884) married Priestly’s brother Ebenezer Walker McBride (1803-1867) three years later. Bingham painted all four individuals. The two couples, along with a third brother, James Haggin McBride (1814-1864), and his wife Mildred Barnes, were founders of Paris, Monroe County, Missouri. Mary and Priestly had three children: Sarah Adeline, Mary, and John. Mary Snell McBride died in Columbia, Missouri, at the age of 49. Though the written record on Mary McBride is sparse, Bingham’s visual record gives us a sense of the woman — and of the women of her time and position.
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