Looking ahead to the exhibition that will visit the Met this summer, I have just read the catalogue, “Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham & the River” and found it illuminating and crystallizing why I so like Bingham’s work. First, it put his oeuvre in context: one never knows how unique an artist’s vision is, or whether the artist we know is merely the one out of many whom the market has recognized. In this case, it seems that Bingham created the world of his paintings largely on his own. He was selling to the East, as all the “Western” artists were, but instead of glamorizing the drama of the wilderness he was showing how tame, indeed how civilized, it was. Whether this was part of a chamber-of-commerce pitch to lure people to Missouri, an effort to make sales by not scaring Eastern clients, or simply a reflection of Bingham’s own psyche is not spelled out, and probably not known. Whatever the cause, the placidity of his compositions is a big part of their attraction and certainly contributes to the timelessness of his best work.
The contrast with the work of Charles Deas, who was pretty much Bingham’s contemporary, brought home this point. There is a restlessness, and often overt energy, in Deas’s depiction of frontier characters that can be exciting, but at the same time makes his works seem dated.
The other aspect of Bingham’s paintings that contributes to their timelessness is their lack of any specific locale. Without a title identifying the scene as “the Missouri,” one wouldn’t know where it was. There are no cities or signs of human habitation in the background. Instead of a snapshot in time, the paintings rise to a level of mythic universality – man and the river.
The placid and placeless qualities of Bingham’s river paintings should have been obvious to me, and maybe they were on a subconscious level, but the catalogue spelled them out and I felt enlightened. Just as obvious, but something I had been quite aware of, was the classical compositions Bingham used, which further contributed to the harmony and stability of his best works. Almost all of them feature strong horizontal lines, close and parallel to the bottom of the frame, establishing a platform for his figures. The flatboats and rafts are seen directly from the rear, and in the masterpiece “Fur Traders Descending the Missouri” the canoe extends in a horizontal line almost the width of the canvas. Moreover, there is scarcely a ripple in the water, creating reflections that anchor the subjects even further. When there is a group of men, they are arranged in an isosceles triangle which extends to include their boat. Raphael could not have done it better himself.
A final point is the faces and body poses of the men on the boats. Bingham began his career as a portraitist, and he is certainly superior to his Hudson River contemporaries in his facility with the human form. His ability notwithstanding, he doesn’t go very far afield in this area. His figures are all based on models, and he uses the same ones over and over – both the faces and the positions. People sitting are generally slouched over, passive, at rest. The faces are round, pleasant, untroubled. There is no psychology, there is nothing happening: these are just people sitting on a lazy river, biding their time – sort of like an Otis Redding song. As a result, we can read into the picture any feeling we want. There are always figures looking at us, studying what we are doing just as we contemplate them.
As much as enjoyed seeing The Jolly Flatboatmen reprised at the end of Tommy Lee Jones’s The Homesman, it is Fur Traders Descending the Missouri that I am looking forward to seeing up close and in person. In addition to all the Bingham elements discussed above, it has the exotic appeal of the grizzled voyageur, his “half-breed” son and the pet bear cub in the prow. The composition is stripped of all extraneous elements – an extra tree stump, for instance, was painted over – and the background and clouds are lightly suggested. The clothing is bright and monochromatic, as in a Renaissance painting, and there are just enough details – the shot duck, the puff of smoke – to engage our interest. Both father and son are staring, not at the river ahead, but at us. What we think of them does not seem as urgent as what they must think of us.

PS: Having now seen the Bingham exhibition at the Met, I have to feel that Bingham caught lightning in a bottle: he made two great pictures that are deservedly icons of American painting and a few others in a similar vein that are good, not great. His later pictures get progressively weaker; he tries to recapture the lightning, but there’s no more inspiration or, maybe, skill. His stock characters, which he traces onto his canvases, carry him only so far.