Last week, a little-known tradition of modern presidential inaugurations brought unwanted attention to the St. Louis Art Museum. Since Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration in 1985, an American painting has served as a backdrop during the inaugural luncheon, at which members of Congress play host to the newly installed president. When Donald Trump is made the 45th president of the United States on Jan. 20, George Caleb Bingham’s “The Verdict of the People” will be the chosen painting, hanging on a partition wall behind the ceremonial head table in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall.
The painting was finished in 1855 by an artist best known for his Mississippi River scenes, which burnished the rough-and-tumble and often violent West into a benign and mythological place, ready for investment, development and full participation in American political life.
“The Verdict of the People,” which shows a large crowd celebrating or mourning election results in a Missouri town, is part of a series of three large canvasses created in the 1850s, each taking up the theme of democratic self- governance. The paintings have long been resident in St. Louis; since 2001, all three have been owned by the St. Louis Museum of Art.
Passions against Trump run high in the arts world, so two St. Louis-area residents, art historian Ivy Cooper and artist Ilene Berman, launched an effort to stop Bingham’s work from appearing at Trump’s honorary luncheon. A Change.org petition, which criticizes “the use of the painting to suggest that Trump’s election was truly the ‘verdict of the people,’ when in fact the majority of votes . . . were cast for Trump’s opponent” has more than 3,000 signatures.
The St. Louis museum isn’t backing off its commitment to send the painting to Washington, and the effort to stop it is a small pre-election skirmish in what will be a long, fraught and likely disorganized boycott of the Trump administration by artists, scholars, and citizens who align themselves with the arts and humanities sector. The petition, and the flurry of attention it raised, is important as a moment of what might be called the “stress testing” of this country’s cultural institutions. As Trump opponents look to the next four years, they want to know how much cultural and moral capital is stored in the institutions they love. Will museums and universities and arts centers be up to the challenge of confrontation, resistance and truth-telling?
With Trump’s surprise electoral victory on Nov. 8, the St. Louis museum was put in an awkward position. In July, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) inquired about borrowing the painting for the inaugural luncheon. As chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, Blunt was preparing for the January festivities without knowledge of who would be elected. A formal request by the bipartisan committee to borrow the painting was made in September, and though it wasn’t officially ratified by the museum board’s collections committee until Dec. 6, that final post-election decision was merely a formality, according to Brent R. Benjamin, director of the museum.
“When the U.S. Senate asks the St. Louis Art Museum to be part of the inauguration, we consider that an honor,” said Benjamin. The decision, he says, wasn’t controversial; the museum was simply honoring its pre-election commitment to a bipartisan congressional committee. “We take no position either on candidates for public office or individuals who hold public office,” he says. The museum will incur no costs for shipping and securing the painting during its Washington sojourn, though critics of the museum point out that the painting is particularly popular with local audiences, and rarely travels, so its absence isn’t without local impact.
Cooper, who co-authored the petition, points out that this was no ordinary election, and it produced no ordinary president-elect, and that even though the request was made before votes were cast, complying with it makes the museum complicit in the bigotry Trump has used for political purposes. The painting is so closely tied to the St. Louis community, she says, that its use at the inaugural luncheon suggests that the city — which voted for Hillary Clinton although the state supported Trump — endorses him. “We feel that the president-elect is unprecedented, completely lacking suitability and experience, with a platform based on racism, sexism and anti-democratic values,” wrote Cooper in an email. “If there ever was a moment to reexamine the role that traditions play in the inaugural process, this is it.”
The tradition in question is a matter of appearances, literally. After Reagan’s first inauguration, organizers decided to partition off the caterers’ staging area behind the president’s table to avoid confusion and distraction, explains Laura Condeluci, communication director for the JCCIC. A temporary partition wall was erected and for the next inaugural luncheon Jasper Francis Cropsey’s “Autumn on the Hudson River” was hung there as decoration. Every four years, a painting has been chosen, sometimes borrowed from out-of-town collections, to adorn the partition.
This year’s painting, however, breaks with precedent. It isn’t simply a famous portrait of a Founding Father, or an appealing landscape, as in the past. Rather, it is a politically charged representation of one of the darkest moments in American history.
Despite the title, “The Verdict of the People,” and the seeming jubilation of many of the figures in the picture, Bingham was representing a despairing moment in the life of his state, and American politics.
“Bingham is a Whig Painter, using these images to depict a Democratic victory,” says Adam Arenson, associate professor of history at Manhattan College in New York, and an expert on Missouri history. As a Whig, Bingham was anti-slavery while the Democratic Party, at the time, was either proslavery, or complicit in status-quo acceptance of it. “The Verdict of the People” was painted just as Congress passed the disastrous Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which put a future of slavery in Kansas to a popular vote. Thugs from Missouri got in the fray, crossing the border to attack abolitionist settlers. One of the state’s senators, David Atchison, called on his supporters “to kill every Goddamned abolitionist” if necessary to secure Kansas as a slave state.
“Bingham is painting out of a great fear that popular sovereignty and the Kansas-Nebraska act will lead to an irreparable divide in the country,” says Arenson. “It represents a moment when democracy was unable to handle the conflict of the country.”
A Dec. 16 news release from the JCCIC announcing Blunt’s choice of the painting took a different view, calling it an “inclusive” image. “Everyone is here — the well-to-do farmers, laborers, merchants, westerners, kids, politicians, immigrants, veterans, women, and African Americans. They are elated, dejected, confounded, argumentative, jovial, and intensely serious.”
Melissa Wolfe, curator of American Art at the Saint Louis Art Museum, agrees that the painting represents a wide range of the electorate. But she also points out that the crowd in the image is framed by an African American slave on the left, and women in a balcony on the right of scene, likely holding a temperance banner.
“Those are the only two constituencies that do not have representation,” she says.
And so Bingham’s painting is an almost ideal emblem for a president who came to power on a promise to “Make America Great Again.” Blunt seems to read this painting as a reassuring sign that American electoral politics have always been messy and fractious. But he chose an image that in fact depicts a (likely) proslavery candidate triumphing in the name of an America that denies not only full suffrage, but basic human and constitutional freedoms to its African American population.
The painting’s use at the inauguration also highlights a problem that opponents of the new president will face again and again: Is there method in what appears to be simply blundering cultural ignorance? Is there design in casual remarks and off-the-cuff observations that seem to be deliberately provocative? At a moment when the new president is able to lie with impunity, despite the immediate availability of documentary evidence to the contrary, focusing attention on the age-old problem of misreading a painting won’t be easy.
But there is good news in this particular story. The St. Louis Art Museum was sensitive and responsive to the concerns raised by Cooper and Berman. Benjamin, the museum’s director, promised to meet with them, and Cooper said in an email, “I don’t expect the loan to be canceled, but I’m immensely gratified that the museum is open to hearing our concerns.” That offers a road map for other arts institutions at this difficult moment.
And finally, the painting itself has had a chance to speak to a wider public. Blunt may not have a clue what’s going on in the image, but its brief notoriety will invite others to participate in a process of skeptical thinking that needs regular exercise and broader practice. America never had a golden age to which we should aspire to return; and, like the moment captured in this painting, there’s little innocence in what we often remember as harmless Americana.