In George Caleb Bingham’s 1852 lithograph “In a Quandary (Mississippi Raftsmen Playing Cards),” a quartet of raggedly dressed men float down the river on a raft. Two players are sitting on a long bench; one man has just made his play, and the other is pondering his next move. The other men stand ready to give advice. Behind them, a bluff overlooks the steady Mississippi River, and a fearsome line of thunderclouds looms in the distance.
The vessel isn’t carrying cargo but actually functions as cargo itself. At the time, lumber cut upstream was bound together in “flats” and sent adrift downstream. At its destination, the rafts were split up and the lumber sold.
Almost 80 years later, Thomas Hart Benton etched a different river scene. Titled “Flood,” the drawing shows an elderly man feebly clenching the arm of his daughter. The torrent of the Missouri River has struck a lethal blow, swallowing up livestock, valuables and memories. Everything that the man has is sunken beneath a layer of muck.
The two works are part of “The Great Rivers: Artists Interpret the Mississippi and Missouri,” an exhibit at the State Historical Society of Missouri through May 13. Along with two of Missouri’s premiere names in the art world, the exhibit features Swiss artist Karl Bodmer, who captured the hardships of steamboat travel on his journeys with Prince Maximilian; Frederick Oates Sylvester and his rich renderings of the Mississippi River; and Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives, whose prints show the river as an uncompromising force of nature. All but one of the pieces in the exhibit are from the state historical society’s permanent collection.
“I was looking through our collection and came to the realization that two water-bound characters kept emerging time and time again,” said Chris Montgomery, curator of “The Great Rivers.” “I thought to myself, ‘Instead of doing a show that focuses on one artist’s work as we typically do, why don’t we concentrate on the artist’s depiction of these watery interstates of old?’”
In Missouri, two mighty swaths of the Missouri and the Mississippi rivers could transport freight with rapidity. The rivers were prominent tools of commerce and played a momentous role in the shaping of the state of Missouri. Farmers depended on the rivers to transport crops, lumber was bought and sold along their watercourses, embryonic towns prospered beside their waters and cultural renegades banked on the joyous seclusion of being called river men.
As time passed and industrialization took hold, however, the meaning of the rivers to everyday life began to subside. This change is evident in the contrasting scenes of river life by Bingham and Benton.
“I think that if one were inclined to trace these portraits chronologically, he or she would gain great visual insight into the history of the state,” Montgomery said. “How industrialization and the decline of barge traffic in the 1880s led to the rivers’ once invaluable function to become almost purely recreational.”
Byproducts of the dissipation of river life included such river settlements as Marion City and Wittenberg, which flourished for barely half a century only to become forgotten phantoms of an obsolete mode of transit. Floods were frequently the culprits leading to the final downfall of these river-side townships.
Bingham depicted the Mississippi and its people romantically, but Benton didn’t shy away from the anxieties and tribulations that took place on the Missouri’s banks, Montgomery said. Because the rivers were not as significant during Benton’s time because of innovations such as the train and automobile, his depictions were, in many ways, filled with despair.
Bingham was born in Virginia in 1811. When he was 8, his family moved to Franklin, a busy port where his lifelong fascination with river life germinated. Although he was often praised for his paintings depicting frontier politics, such as “Order No. 11” that shows men, women and children being forced from their homes by Union soldiers during the Civil War, Bingham was probably best known for his river scenes.
Bingham particularly fancied the rough and tumble lifestyles of the men who transported cargo on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. A typical day for these river men would be spent rowing flatboats to trading posts and loading them with fur and other goods, then floating with the current to junctions where the cargo would be loaded onto steamboats or railroads for shipment to eastern marketplaces. While on the river, their time was spent gambling and drinking.
Bingham depicted these men as self-governing iconoclasts floating the river with ease. Eastern audiences perceived Bingham’s creations as being representative of the frontier — showing tattered characters with no reservations about a lifestyle that appeared to teeter on the fringe of civilization.
But by the middle of the 19th century, the age of flatboatmen was coming to an end. Steamboats could hold more freight and the concept of the trading post was becoming obsolete.
Bingham was enraptured with these rugged outlaws of river life until about 1857, after which he hardly afforded these men a stroke of the brush as the flatboating trade disintegrated. Although not part of “The Great Rivers” exhibit, one of Bingham’s last portrayals, “Mississippi Boatman,” captures a soon-to-be forgotten entity of river life. The subject’s brow is ruffled and his eyes are flushed with resignation as he gnaws on his corn cob pipe. His posture is deflated as dim storms draw nearer.
Benton was born in Neosho in 1889 to a family of politicians. At a young age, Benton decided to pursue a career as an artist instead of taking up politics.
One of the first American regionalists, an assemblage of painters organized in the 1930s that rejected the city as subject, Benton had a fundamental passion in the quandary of the everyday man.
Benton enjoyed portraying landscapes as unadulterated bounties, rampant with the hues of life, said Sid Larson, a longtime friend and protégé of Benton’s. In Missouri, much of the landscape incorporated the river. Larson said Benton’s fascination with flooding was a product of the time, when after industrialization, a flood may have been one of the only signs of activity on the river.
But there was more to Benton’s muse than tragedy, Larson said. His paintings celebrated the backbone of Midwestern consciousness and championed traditional rural values over the high and mighty of the mercantile world. “Fiercely patriotic,” Larson said, Benton was a bit dismissive of the city and industrialization.
“I think Tom believed that the heart and soul of America” lay in its countryside, Larson said. “Of course, who am I to be so sure? Tom always believed that the message behind art should be left up to the viewer. That if he were to simply spell out the underlying meanings, his art would lose any kind of emotional impact.”