A new art exhibit put together by MU’s art and archaeology department features rarely seen works of George Caleb Bingham, one of Missouri’s most famous and important artists.
“Bingham presents Missourians within their cultural contexts, exploring their strengths and weaknesses as well as their particular roles in the formation of the state,” said Kristin Schwain, curator of the George Caleb Bingham exhibit.
That is one of many reasons why an exhibit of Bingham’s work was chosen to celebrate the centennial of MU’s College of Arts and Science. One of the aims of this exhibit is to show how important the college is to the future of Missouri and the role that MU has in preserving Missouri’s history.
“An exhibit on Bingham, therefore, illuminates the role the University of Missouri-Columbia plays in collecting, preserving, interpreting and sharing Missouri’s cultural history with citizens of the state,” Schwain said.
Some of the rarely seen paintings deal with Missouri’s history directly.
One of the most unique paintings in the exhibit is “Major Dean in Jail,” which depicts Dean sitting on a chair in jail reading a book while a stream of light pours through the windows.
Major Dean served during the Civil War, aiding both Confederate and Union soldiers. Once the war ended, Dean, a Baptist minister, had to swear an oath of loyalty to the state of Missouri’s constitution. He refused and was thrown in jail.
Politically charged subject matter is not uncommon in Bingham’s work, but the technique used in the painting is unique. Bingham took a photograph of Dean in jail and then painted over it in specific places.
Some of the rarely seen pieces in the exhibit focus on westward expansion and the dangers involved. In “Belated Wayfarers,” two travelers have set up camp next to a tree. The painting shows the vulnerability of the two men traveling west. Along with “Captured by Indians,” it is one of a pair that explores this theme.
To highlight history and engage the audience, the curators asked art history students to write interpretations to be displayed along with the paintings. Most exhibitions in museums typically display art along with unsigned descriptions. Schwain thinks the interpretations will help give patrons a different kind of museum experience.
“Indeed, going to a museum should not be a passive form of entertainment,” she said. “It provides an opportunity for you to look critically and to ask difficult questions of the artist, the artwork, and yourself.”
The interpretations also provide another function for the exhibit.
“Overall, the exhibit demonstrates that there is no single ‘answer’ for what a work of art means. Including multiple perspectives opens the door for viewers to develop their own interpretations and gives them room to agree or disagree with ours,” said Sarah Carter, an art history graduate student at MU who wrote four interpretations for the exhibit.
The students were chosen by Schwain, and each student chose what pieces they would interpret.
One student chosen to write about the paintings was Hannah Johnson. The time period that the exhibit focuses on is not her area of interest, but she said she felt honored to be a part of this. The two pieces that she chose to write about were “Portrait of Thomas Whithers Nelson” and a genre painting called “Belated Wayfarers.”
“Once you begin to really study a work of art, details and themes start emerging,” Johnson said.
“It was like writing a mini-research paper,” said Wendy Castenell, a doctoral student of art history at MU. She not only looked at other Bingham paintings but also did research on the artist and the period in which he worked.“I hope we can create a more nuanced and honest look at life in pre- and post-Civil War Missouri, which will, in turn, shed light on issues we continue to face in the 21st century,” Schwain said.