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American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915—George Caleb Bingham's Take on Election Day

October 12, 2009–January 24, 2010
Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter shares his insights on Election Day and on George Caleb Bingham's painting The County Election, on view in the exhibition American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915.


Carrie Rebora Barratt: This is Carrie Rebora Barratt, curator—with my colleague Barbara Weinberg—of the exhibition American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The exhibition includes more than one hundred iconic works by many of America's most acclaimed artists, who tell stories about their times by depicting ordinary people engaged in life's tasks and pleasures. Their paintings range in date from the Revolutionary era to the eve of World War I.

The County Election is one of a series of paintings by George Caleb Bingham that celebrates elections in the newly created states along America's western frontier. In it, with a keen sense of critical humor toward the American democratic system, Bingham conveys all of the hurly-burly of a polling place on Election Day. Bingham himself was a disappointed politician, denied election to the Missouri statehouse in 1846 by crooked dealing. He swore never to get involved in politics again, but, in the end, found himself addicted to the competition, and eventually served as a state treasurer during the Civil War.

We invited Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter to share his insights on The County Election with us.

Jonathan Alter: I've covered seven presidential elections for Newsweek magazine. I grew up in a political family in Chicago. My mother was the first woman elected in the Chicago area to public office. As a child, I would take Election Day off from school. My parents would let me play hooky so that I could electioneer and take part in local elections. So when I see something like this painting about a county election, it's very familiar to me. Politics has changed in certain ways tremendously, and in other ways it hasn't really changed very much at all. And what I love about this painting is that it conveys the excitement and even the fun that an Election Day can bring. Some people see politics as dreary and boring, not connected to their lives. I believe just the opposite, that it's vital, deeply important, and also a lot of fun, in the same way that following sports is fun for some people.

And I think the context of this is also very important. This painting is from 1852 in Missouri. And at that time, Millard Fillmore was president. Franklin Pierce would be coming in that year as president. These were non-entities. They were not important presidents. But it was an immensely important time, because this was when the country was debating the future of the Union. It's the eve of the Civil War. And there was tremendous emotional connection to politics. The big question of the day was "How should slavery be extended or not extended into the territories?" And Missouri was right at the center of that.

The Missouri Compromise of 1820, which was the first way of papering over the differences over extending slavery into the territories, was revisited in what was called the Clay Compromise of 1850. At this time this painting is depicting, you had greats of the Senate: John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay. And they all lived in the 1850s and they were debating the big issues of the day. So we don't know whether this is a local election or a national election. We know it's happening at the county level. But we do know that there's tremendous enthusiasm and excitement over how this is going to come out and that elections bring out the best and sometimes the worst in human behavior.

One of the things I love about this painting is, in the distance, you can see a man standing on a horse. You just see a little shadow. And he's got his hat up above his head, like he's riding through town, "Yeehaw!" As if this is, you know, one of the most exciting days of his life. Something big is happening: an election. And that's the way I feel at election time. Now, sometimes people get into fights. You see a man who's unconscious being dragged away, another man at the far right who looks like he's been beaten up. You see somebody who's drunk over on the left having a good time, feeling no pain. And then you see people in the center of the painting who are engaged in very earnest political arguments and sometimes deal-making, as they approach the ballot box.

You see that elections are public things. They didn't have as many rules then about how far you had to be from the polling place before you could be engaging in politics. Nowadays, you can't be right up by the polling place trying to convince people how to vote. That's illegal in most jurisdictions. But in Missouri in 1852, you could politic right up until the instant that you cast your ballot. And you can tell that the judges on the porch, the election judges and vote counters, they are separated by only a few feet from the mob. And so you can understand how sometimes elections were not entirely conducted on the up-and-up, either then or now.

I covered the Florida recount in 2000 and I was in Tallahassee as Florida was deciding whether George W. Bush or Al Gore would be President of the United States. And it was tremendously exciting and there was a lot of activity and a feeling of intensity in the way people talked to each other that is not associated with every election, but sometimes if it's especially close or if the stakes are very high, you'll get that intensity, that excitement. And this painting conveys the excitement and the intensity of elections.

Look at the gentleman with the red handkerchief coming out of his pocket and how intently he's making his point to the two men who are listening to him, all three wearing hats. Or the candidate in the middle. He's taking off his top hat and he's trying to ingratiate himself with voters as they go up to cast their ballots. That's almost a universal sign of a politician: smile on his face, tipping his hat. Even though politicians don't wear hats anymore, they have that same ingratiating expression on their face when they want your vote.

And then you can see others talking very intensely to one another. The gentleman in the middle of the painting who's pointing his finger intensely into the palm of his other hand—he's making a point. The two people who are leaning over, looking over the third man marking out his ballot, show that voting was not confidential all the time in those days.

So you get a sense of the vividness of politics in local life. And in that sense, this painting conveys the emotions and intensity of feeling that were part of our democracy in the mid-nineteenth century. And what gives it even more power is the context that this was as the nation was on the cusp of civil war. And government of the people, by the people, for the people "might," as Lincoln said, "perish from this Earth." So the stakes were high. And the people in this painting understand at some level, maybe a subconscious level, that they're engaged in something that is deeply important for their community and for their country.

But while they're doing it, they're human. And they're enjoying it, which is as it should be. It shouldn't be a dreary process. Elections in other paintings that come to mind are depicted as solemn, civic rituals, almost like people going to church. Well, that's not what elections in this country have been about. So this painting does a terrific job of connecting the ritual of Election Day to the broader themes of everyday life and of conveying the vibrancy and fun of American democracy.

Carrie Rebora Barratt: This work, along with the rest of the paintings in the exhibition, can be viewed online at metmuseum.org in the special feature for American Stories. There, as on the Audio Guide program in the exhibition galleries, you can also hear a range of perspectives by Barbara Weinberg and me, as well as by artists, historians, and other experts from a variety of fields.

The exhibition is made possible by Alamo Rent A Car, The Marguerite and Frank A. Cosgrove Jr. Fund, The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation, the Henry Luce Foundation, and the Oceanic Heritage Foundation.

It is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

The Audio Guide is sponsored by Bloomberg.

American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915 is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from October 12, 2009, through January 24, 2010.

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