George Caleb Bingham (American, 1811–1879)
Oil on canvas
29 x 36 1/2 in. (73.7 x 92.7 cm)
Morris K. Jesup Fund, 1933 (33.61)
Bingham's emblematic image refers to trade, settlement, the nation's north-south axis—the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers—and the issue of race. It can be read from left to right—against the flow—from the native bear cub chained to the boat's prow, to the boy reclining on the pelts, to the man at the stern, a straight line from the beast to civilized humanity. Bingham himself called the picture "French-Trader—Half Breed Son," emphasizing its racial exoticism. However, the managers of the American Art-Union in New York, where he sent it for exhibition, chose to show it under its present title, which transformed the trader and his son into generalized western types. The scene is most remarkable for its pervasive stillness, as native and foreign American inhabitants along the upper reaches of the Missouri drift toward the embrace of the modern, urbanized world.