George Caleb Bingham: Biography, Paintings & the County Election

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

In this lesson, learn how life on the American frontier in the 1800s inspired Missouri artist George Caleb Bingham. He created detailed genre paintings that captured everyday life and work along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. A politician as well as an artist, Bingham also documented events such as the county election.

Early Years

George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879) was born on a farm in Virginia. His family soon moved westward to Franklin, Missouri, a new settlement on the banks of the Missouri River. There, as a boy, George met painter Chester Harding, who stayed at his father Henry Bingham's inn while completing a portrait of Daniel Boone. George watched Harding work in his temporary studio, and it left a lasting impression. As a young man, George apprenticed with a cabinetmaker and considered becoming a preacher, but the pull of art proved too strong. He became an itinerant portrait painter, traveling a circuit in pursuit of his profession, instead of opening a studio in one location. His early portraits displayed considerable technical skill despite his being self-taught, and he became much sought after. By 1833, he was able to make a living with his painting.

Self-Portrait, ca. 1835
Self-Portrait, ca. 1835

In 1838, Bingham traveled east to study art for three months at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, and in the late 1850s he went to Europe for a few years. But he spent most of his life and career in Missouri, inspired by the activity around him. He became known as 'the Missouri Artist.'

Scenes of Life on the River

Missouri proved pivotal to Bingham's work. He lived on the western frontier at a time of great change, and witnessed the transformation first hand. He painted portraits to support his family, but became known for a series of genre scenes, images that portrayed everyday life. These works, done between 1845 and 1855, depicted community and work along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.

One of his best known works is Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, painted in 1845. The original title, French Trader and his Half-Breed Son, speaks to the cultural and ethnic stew on the frontier at the time. A canoe plies through still waters, reflecting the sense of calm in the quiet scene. But there's a lot going on below the surface. The mixed-race trapper and his son, their chosen method of work, and the tame bear cub, all express contrasting ideas of wilderness versus civilization, race and ethnicity, westward expansion and settlement.

Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, 1845
Fur Traders Descending the Missouri

Another painting, The Jolly Flatboatmen (1846), portrays workers in a moment of brief relaxation and enjoyment on the river. Men dressed in common work clothes gather to listen and dance to a fiddle tune. Clothing hangs to dry, bedrolls are stowed, and another workday begins.

Jolly Flatboatmen

The County Election

Along with images of river life, Bingham began a series of election paintings, of which The County Election (1851-52) is the most famous. It portrays a specific event, election day in 1850 in Saline County, Missouri. It was also a contest in which Bingham was running for an office. He didn't win, but the painting created a lasting glimpse into mid-nineteenth century American civic life.

The County Election, 1851-52
The County Election

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