Lesser-known works of George Caleb Bingham on exhibit at historical society

Tuesday, August 2, 2011 | 12:12 p.m. CDT; updated 5:53 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, August 2, 2011
"Mary Eliza Barr" is among Missouri artist George Caleb Binghams' earliest paintings. Although he is primarily known for his works depicting American politics and Missouri life, he painted several portraits of women and children.

COLUMBIA — George Caleb Bingham, a prominent American painter of the 19th century, is often recognized for his works reflecting the day's political issues and scenes from the Missouri River.

But a lesser-known body of work that Bingham created centered around women and children. Examples of these works are on display this summer in "Women, Children, and George Caleb Bingham" at the State Historical Society of Missouri at MU.

If you go

What: "Women, Children and George Caleb Bingham: A Selection of Artworks"

When: Through Sept. 2. Open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and from 9 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. Saturdays.

Where: George Caleb Bingham Gallery, State Historical Society of Missouri, basement of Ellis Library, Lowry Mall, MU

Admission: Free

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“I wanted to stress the theme that is not often talked about: women and children and Bingham’s relationship with his family,” said Joan Stack, curator of art collections at the historical society.

Five portraits and three sketchbook pages in the exhibition feature women and/or children. There is also a portrait of James Rollins, after whom Bingham named a son — Rollins, likewise, named a son after Bingham — and a needlework portrait of George Washington done by Bingham's young daughter, Clara.

“I think people really like seeing these paintings and other works that we have not displayed," Stack said. "People tend to be very charmed by the paintings of children.”

Also in the exhibition is a print of Bingham's "Order No. 11," the original of which usually hangs in the gallery. It depicts residents of four western Missouri counties leaving their homes at the order of the Union Army. Those most affected by this edict lived in rural, unincorporated areas, said Greig Thompson, chief museum preparator. The order exempted populations living within or in close proximity to several of the larger towns.

The painting is on loan to the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, but a hand-printed image engraved by John Sartain hangs in its place for the exhibition. 

In the print by Bingham, two women are trying to stop an older man and two soldiers from fighting as a scared child holds onto the old man’s leg. A person lies on the ground with blood pooled near his head. A woman who has fainted lies on her servant’s arms. A young boy runs with his arms outstretched alongside a man who is covering his face in his hands as they flee the scene.

“(Bingham) was a Union supporter, but he felt this was an abuse of power," Stack said of Bingham's perception of General Order No. 11. "He didn’t think the government needed to treat the civilians in this way. This is a way of protest painting. He was outraged by what happened in Missouri, by the government policy, General Order No. 11."

Nine of the works in the exhibition are Bingham's original compositions. The needlework by Clara Bingham is based on one of Gilbert Stuart's portraits of Washington, Thompson said. Her father had made a painted copy of the Stuart work for the Missouri Capitol.

Thompson said that on one of the sketchbook pages is a drawing of the "Venus de' Medici;" another holds, in addition to a bust study of an old man, pencil copies of two paintings by the 16th-century Venetian painter, Titian. Bingham likely based all three of these drawings on etchings he found in books, Thompson said.

"The Thread of Life" features a woman and child in Bingham's only known painting based on mythology. Stack said Bingham probably painted it during the Civil War to honor the birth of his son James Rollins Bingham. In it, a woman holding a baby sits on a cloud. She carries a distaff — a tool used for spinning thread — and the infant pulls on the thread spun. A guardian angel supports the cloud.

Stack said the concept is based on three ancient Roman and Greek mythological Fates: spinning, measuring and cutting the thread of life. She said the woman and child most likely represent the first phase.

Bingham's “Portrait of Thomas Edward Allison” is an oil painting of a 1- or 2-year-old boy in a dress commonly worn by male children of the era. Bingham painted this portrait in his later years.

Bingham's portrait of 7- or 8-year-old Mary Eliza Barr was among his earliest paintings. Barr's father was Robert Steele Barr, a stockholder of the Smithton Land Company, which purchased 2,000 acres that would become Columbia.

Bingham's portraits of Mary Jane (Royall) Switzler and Elizabeth Jane (Thorton) Doniphan depict two prominent figures in Missouri history. Switzler was the wife of William Switzler, a newspaper publisher and founder of the Columbia Missouri Statesman. Doniphan was the wife of Alexander Doniphan, widely considered a hero of the Mexican-American War. The southeast Missouri town of Doniphan was named for him.

“Bingham is not just painting pretty things," Stack said. "He is giving them expressions. You can imagine these people speaking to us. They look like real people. They don’t just look like pretty things. Every viewer can capture their personality."

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