IT'S A SAFE bet that painter George Caleb Bingham would get an NEA grant if he were around today. No controversy, no questions asked. Bingham's bucolic scenes celebrating American life rank right up there on the recognition meter with the Winslow Homers and Norman Rockwells.
At the National Gallery of Art, a show of 29 of Bingham's best paintings from his most productive period brings us a gallery of boisterous pictures of rural politics, a roomful of representations of Mississippi River life and a series of lushly imagined landscapes. All the paintings evince a nostalgia for an ideal, idyllic America that was already vanishing in the mid-19th century.
A self-taught artist, the Virginia-born Bingham started out as an itinerant portraitist, and got along by "doing heads" while he learned his art. We're introduced to Bingham at the opening of the exhibition with his stiff, stern 1834 self-portrait.
Bingham is famous for his "genre paintings," scenes from everyday life as the nation expanded and the frontier receded. They're all as picturesque as hell, but if he romanticized some aspects of his country, Bingham wasn't putting a whitewash on it. If you look closely at the more rambunctious political pictures, for instance, you'll catch him making an editorial comment on democracy in action. And this guy knew what he was painting about -- he participated in "the mire of politics" in a way few artists have, serving in the Missouri Legislature and as state treasurer, and running (unsuccessfully) for a seat in Congress.
"The County Election" (1851-52) is a local voting scene so busy it almost makes noise. But spend some time with it, and you'll notice some chicanery within the dusty, good-humored hubbub -- are those scoundrels dragging unconscious drunks and ne'er-do-wells to the polls? Buying drinks for cooperative voters? Holding out palms to be paid? A dog at the center of the scene seems to be sniffing at something rotten. And "The Verdict of the People" freezes the moment as the final counts are being handed down. On a piece of paper at the center of the commotion, you can check out the final numbers -- the margin is too close for comfort, and someone will undoubtedly demand a recount.
You'll surely recognize several of Bingham's rustic river scenes. He liked to set the action -- if you call fishing, playing cards and daydreaming "action" -- on lazily drifting flatboats. Though the steamboat was by then in full steam on the Mississippi, Bingham apparently wasn't thrilled about this sign of technological progress. Representing his historical paintings is "The Emigration of Daniel Boone," which makes majestic the perilous passage of "the Columbus of the Frontier" over the Cumberland Gap.
Bingham made his money from black and white engravings made from his pictures, and there are examples included here. And when he had a "hit" painting, Bingham would often paint it again, but slightly recast -- sort of a sequel. We see the "Country Politician" (1849) getting out the vote, earnestly hashing over the issues with a trio of locals in a bare room; later, in "Canvassing for a Vote" (1851-52) he's still at it, with the same fellows on a country porch. We catch "The Jolly Flatboatmen" capering to the accompaniment of fiddle and banging pots and pans, enlivening a sluggish morning on the river; when we encounter them later as "The Jolly Flatboatmen in Port," it's sunset and they're still at it, having more fun than ever.
Finally, there's a room of Bingham's pastoral landscapes, composed as carefully as his genre paintings, and similarly invented for maximum effect. In these, as in the genre pictures, Bingham was fondest of dawn and dusk for the light, and the scenes are pleasantly tinted with nostalgic ambers and soft roses and wistful blues. The summer haze prevalent in the river pictures will be familiar even to city-dwellers.
This exhibition was distilled from a larger show put together by the St. Louis Art Museum. If you want to see more, the National Museum of American Art is showing "Missouri Portfolio: The Drawings of George Caleb Bingham" through Aug. 19. GEORGE CALEB BINGHAM --
Sunday through Sept. 30 in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art. Open 10 to 5 Monday through Saturday and 11 to 6 Sunday. Metro: Archives.