Interpretation of Bingham's “The Belated Wayfarers”

Friday, June 8, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:12 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

By the mid 19th century, manifest destiny, an imperialist policy that Americans were preordained to expand territory to bolster social, political and economic influences, was deeply entrenched in the country’s consciousness. Bingham, a vocal champion of industry and economic growth, often painted noble representations of the wayfarers or pilgrims that braved these daunting expeditions.

This warm, mysterious portrait of American pioneers presents a largely heroic version of westward expansion. Here, Bingham has formulated a composition that speaks to the dangers and vulnerabilities that travelers confronted while moving west. The men have set up camp for the evening in the protective yet foreboding nook of a massive, gnarled tree. To the far left, the hind end of a horse is evident, it’s cast- off saddle indicating a moment of respite from the arduous trail. Both men are exhausted from their presumably long journey and nod off in the presence of an unseen fire, which baths the men in Bingham’s characteristic glowing light. The figure on the left has taken the time to remove his boots, but sleeps fully clothed on a thin, simple blanket. The figure on the right sleeps upright, having only taken off his hat. Their fine, unsoiled clothing indicates not only their elevated social standing, but may also be perceived as a signal that their journey is only beginning. The concept of time is also directly referred to in Bingham’s title. The word “belated” may refer to cloak of night around the men, but could more realistically refer to the timing of the expedition in general. Though wayfaring was common at the end of the eighteenth century and the early decades of the nineteenth century, by the time Bingham’s painting was created, wayfaring was a less frequent means of climbing social strata.

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