Aug. 08--The first comprehensive exhibition of paintings and drawings in 25 years by one of the greatest American artists ever, Missourian George Caleb Bingham, will come to the St. Louis Art Museum in mid-February.
Titled "Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham's River Paintings," it will have 69 objects. Iconic genre paintings, including "The Jolly Flatboatmen" and "Fur Traders Descending the Missouri," will be included, as will 50 finished drawings. The exhibition opens first at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, in Fort Worth, Texas, in September, and goes to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York after it leaves St. Louis.
The exhibition is curated by Andrew Walker of the Amon Carter; he was formerly chief curator of American art at SLAM.
Bingham was born in Virginia in 1811 and moved with his family to Franklin, Mo., in 1818. When he married, he moved to Arrow Rock; later, he lived in St. Louis, Boonville and Kansas City. Known as "the Missouri Artist," he died in Kansas City in 1879.
A self-taught artist, Bingham made his living from painting portraits. He began making his distinctive river paintings and drawings in the 1840s, when the growing nation's rivers were its highways, and flatboats and steamboats moved goods to the Western frontier and furs and other raw materials to the East. The exhibition will provide viewers with a comprehensive look both at Bingham's oeuvre and a pivotal time in the history of our country.
It's all possible because of the foresighted team of Christopher "Kit" Bond and Charles Valier. The St. Louis Mercantile Library owned 112 of Bingham's drawings, integral parts in the creation of his distinctive paintings. In 1974, the library decided to put them up for sale.
At that time, Valier, a former Marine and currently a partner at Lashly & Baer in St. Louis, was counsel to Bond, who was then the governor of Missouri. Bond, who collected Bingham's lithographs, wanted to keep the drawings together and in Missouri.
Valier, who studied art and architecture at Yale while majoring in history, suggested an approach like the one that brought "Miss Jim," the St. Louis Zoo's first elephant, to town in 1960: a public subscription spearheaded by schoolchildren that brought in $40,000.
It worked. More than $2 million was raised, from over 50,000 schoolchildren, along with businesses, interested individuals, and the Missouri Legislature. It was enough both to buy the drawings and set up a fund to maintain them.
"Since it was my idea," Valier said, "the governor said, 'You maintain it.'" He has been the president of the Bingham Trust ever since. Out of Bingham's 117 known drawings ("Probably less than half of what he did," Valier said), the trust owns 113; one was given privately to supplement the original 112.
The drawings are divvied up, approximately 50-50, on loan between SLAM and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. When the drawings are exhibited, the label reads "Lent by the People of Missouri."
All but one of Bingham's distinctive river paintings will be part of the exhibition. "Lighter Relieving a Steamboat," which was privately owned by a St. Louis family for a century, was given to the White House during the Reagan administration. The White House staff refused to lend it for the exhibit, but the drawings associated with it will be on display.
Others were more public-spirited. In addition to SLAM, the Nelson, and the Met, the National Gallery in Washington, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Detroit Institute of Arts and other museums, libraries and individuals are lending other works.
Sarah Bryan Miller is the Post-Dispatch's classical music critic. Follow Bryan on the Culture Club blog, and on Twitter at @SBMillerMusic.
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