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Navigating the West:
George Caleb Bingham and the River

Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River

June 17–September 20, 2015

Location: The Erving and Joyce Wolf Gallery, The American Wing, Gallery 746
Press Preview: Monday, June 29, 10:00 a.m.–1:00 p.m.

One of the foremost American genre painters of the 19th century, George Caleb Bingham is best known for his compelling depictions of frontier life along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River, which opened June 17 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, is the first major Bingham exhibition in more than 25 years. It brings together for the first time 16 of his iconic river paintings. This extraordinary series chronicles the transformation of America’s western wilderness and established an indelible image of the West for the nation. More than 40 of Bingham’s masterful preparatory drawings depicting fur traders and boatmen at work and play on the inland rivers provide an unprecedented look at Bingham’s artistic process. Bingham’s early masterpiece, Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845), from the collection of the Metropolitan, isfeatured in the exhibition.

The exhibition is made possible by The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation.

Additional support is provided by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation.

It was organized by the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, and the Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis, Missouri.  It is supported in part by generous grants from the Henry Luce Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

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

Bingham (1811–1879) was the first major American artist to be based west of the Mississippi River. He would pursue the duel careers of artist and politician, serving in elected positions for four decades. His family moved from Virginia—where Bingham was born—to the Missouri Territory in 1819, several years before it became a state. Throughout the 1830s and 1840s, Missouri remained at the edge of the American frontier, a departure point for explorers, adventurers, and pioneers heading west. Largely self-taught, Bingham relied on drawing manuals rather than formal academic study for instruction. He began his career as an itinerant portrait painter, traveling to counties along the Missouri River portraying middle-class citizens.

Following this early period, Bingham focused his paintings on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, celebrating their critically important role as major arteries of transportation and agents of cultural and economic change for the country. He also identified and codified a wide variety of Western character types—boatman, card player, dockhand, fiddler, fur trader, raftman, and weary traveler, among others—and brought them to national attention. Through his paintings, he promoted romantic evocations of the West to a primarily urban, eastern audience.

A highlight of the exhibition is Bingham’s most highly regarded painting, Fur Traders Descending the Missouri. In this classically balanced, strongly horizontal composition, a French trapper slowly paddles his canoe down the river; his half-European half-Native American son leans across their cargo, and a black bear cub is leashed to the bow. The artist’s brilliant distillation and paring down of compositional elements create a startling stillness. 

The exhibition also features the artist’s most recognized composition—The Jolly Flatboatmen (1846)—which portrays a harmonious environment around a crew of frolicking boatmen playing music and dancing as they drifted downriver on a flatboat full of goods. 

The exhibition provides the most thorough study ever undertaken of Bingham’s working methods and techniques. For the first time, visitors to this exhibition have an opportunity to view all of Bingham’s preparatory drawings in relation to their paintings. New technical studies carried out for the exhibition—which are fully revealed and illustrated in the accompanying catalogue—allowed scholars to see beneath the surface of his paintings. Bingham often traced his drawings directly onto his prepared canvases, and indentations and registration marks on the drawings and canvases confirm this finding. Using infrared reflectography, conservators at the Metropolitan and elsewhere have been able to identify numerous pentimenti (changes the artist made on the canvas that are not part of the final compositions). Through digital imaging, visitors are able to see how Bingham edited his compositions by removing elements of his underdrawing in Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, in order to achieve a balanced composition for his masterpiece. 

A related work—Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi River, which is the last surviving panorama of the Mississippi, painted around 1850 by John J. Egan, another Missouri artist—is shown on a digital monitor, as a slow-moving scroll across 24 scenes of the 348-foot-long work. 

The Museum’s renowned collection of paintings from the Hudson River School (around 1825–75) and a panorama by John Vanderlyn, Panoramic View of the Palace of Versailles (1818–19), located in galleries nearby, allow visitors to compare paintings inspired by two distinct waterways and two versions of a popular 19th-century entertainment, respectively. 

Related Programs
A variety of education programs will take place in conjunction with the exhibition. These include exhibition tours for general audiences, an interdisciplinary gallery conversation, a teen program, and workshops for adults and families with children with developmental and learning disabilities. There will also be a film program and a Sunday at the Met program.

The education programs are made possible by The Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts. 

Related Publication 
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue with essays by Nenette Luarca-Shoaf, visiting research associate, McNeil Center for Early American Studies, University of Pennsylvania; Claire Barry, Director of Conservation, Kimbell Art Museum; Nancy Heugh, paper conservator, and Janeen Turk, Assistant Curator of American art, both of the Saint Louis Art Museum; Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, the Alice Pratt Brown Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture, and Dorothy Mahon, Conservator, Department of Paintings Conservation, both of The Metropolitan Museum of Art; and Andrew J. Walker, Director, and Margaret C. Conrads, Deputy Director of Art and Research, both of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. Published by the Amon Carter Museum of American Art and the Saint Louis Art Museum, and distributed by Yale University Press, the catalogue is be available for purchase in the Metropolitan Museum’s book shops and on the website (hardcover, $45).

Credits 
At the Metropolitan, the exhibition is organized by Elizabeth Kornhauser, the Alice Pratt Brown Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture, and Stephanie L. Herdrich, Assistant Research Curator, The American Wing. Exhibition design is by Daniel Kershaw, Exhibition Design Manager; graphics are by Anna Rieger, Graphic Designer; lighting is by Clint Ross Coller and Richard Lichte, Lighting Design Managers. 

The wall colors in the exhibition are provided by Farrow & Ball.

The exhibition is featured on the website of the Metropolitan Museum, as well as on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter via the hashtag #MetBingham.

Prior to its presentation at the Metropolitan, Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the West was shown at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth (October 2, 2014–January 18, 2015), and the Saint Louis Art Museum (February 22–May 17, 2015). 

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June 18, 2015

Image: George Caleb Bingham (1811–1879). Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, 1845. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Morris K. Jesup Fund, 1933.

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