For the past 12,000 years or so, the area that is now St. Louis has been an important trading point on the Mississippi River.
By the time George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879), a self-taught artist, set up shop in the 1840s, St. Louis was a very busy inland port, which it remains to this day. Large flatboats carrying freight, farm animals and passengers would have been a common sight.
In the painting Raftsmen Playing Cards (28” by 38”, oil on canvas, 1847), we are standing on the forward deck of the flatboat looking at the boat hands relaxing at the end of the day. The setting sun casts all in a golden light; the wide expanse of river is serene and serves to frame the boat.
Now the deck becomes a stage for Bingham to build his subtle geometry. The figures call to mind a classical sense of order. Notice how the jug and three heads on left are lined up along a diagonal, which is echoed by the plank poking out over the water. The arms and legs of the men relate in a similar way, the group as a whole forming a pyramid.
Bingham was the first American artist to use this classical inspired geometry to build a composition. Though Bingham was frontier born and far from the art of French Baroque master Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), I suspect he had at least seen engravings of Poussin’s work and that of the other old masters.
Essentially self-taught, Bingham worked steadily as a portrait artist, painting more than 500, but genre and landscape paintings are what he is known for today. Like the Renaissance masters, he kept collections and drawings and studies, which he would refer to repeatedly for his work.
The popularity of Bingham’s work allowed him to travel to Europe several times for further study.
He was also heavily involved in politics. Although he feared his painting might suffer, he is the only artist I know of who was elected to public office, serving in the Missouri General Assembly.
Nationally renowned local artist Michael McEwan teaches painting and drawing classes at his Clintonville area studio.