Olga's Gallery

George Caleb Bingham Biography

George Caleb Bingham Portrait

George Bingham, though famous as a Missouri artist, was actually born in the state of Virginia on March 20, 1811, on a large farm encompassing eleven hundred and eighty acres, which also included the famous Grand Caverns, then known as Weir’s Cave. The estate belonged to his father, Henry Vest Bingham, and his mother, Mary Bingham, nee Amend. What little is known of them indicates that they were fairly well-to-do and both well-educated. George was the second of seven children.

When George was eight, his family moved to Franklin, Missouri, after his father lost money in a bad investment and decided to try his fortune in the West. However, George’s artistic streak became evident well before that time, at the very early age of four, when he attempted to emulate a rough sketch his father had drawn on a piece of slate. He was soon able to accurately replicate any such engravings. Though he lacked access to actual painting supplies during this period, he proved to be quite resourceful in his ability to improvise, using everything from axle grease to, allegedly, his own blood as substitutes.

In Franklin, the family set up a tobacco factory which became a lucrative business that helped them reclaim a certain amount of their former prosperity. At the same time, they invested in a large farm of over a hundred and fifty acres, and by 1821 they owned a tavern in the public square of Franklin.

Unfortunately, in 1823, George’s father died, leaving behind his wife and children, the eldest of whom, Henry, was fourteen. It is unclear whether the tobacco factory and tavern shut down outright or whether Bingham’s family was forced to sell their share in them, but either way the widow and her children ended up with nothing but the farm in their possession and had to work hard for their living. Mary Bingham’s high level of education came in useful, and she was able to tutor not only her own children but eventually opened a private school for young women. During this time, George helped his elder brother tend to the farm. When the weather didn’t allow for work in the fields, they took whatever other jobs they could find. Likely due to experience acquired in the tobacco factory, George often found work rolling cigars.

When he was sixteen, he was offered an apprenticeship to a cabinet-maker in the neighboring town of Boonville and his mother was quick to send him away, deeming the job less taxing than the daily farm chores. Bingham turned out to be very adept at woodcarving and quickly outshone his fellow apprentices. However, although the art came easy and the profession allowed him to earn substantial money with which to support his family, his heart was set on painting, which he dabbled in at every opportunity. At this time, Bingham also began studying law, which he hoped to someday turn into a profitable career, and theology.

Thus, when his apprenticeship was finally concluded, he was uncertain about which path to choose. It was at this point that he met a traveling artist by the name of Chester Harding, who, upon studying Bingham’s amateur works, persuaded him to pursue an artistic career and gave him some of his first lessons in professional painting.

Surprisingly, perhaps as a result of the small size of the community in which he lived and the lack of other artists in the area, Bingham was hardly finished with his lessons with Harding before he began receiving commissions, most of them portraits. According to some accounts, the young artist was not very proficient with his choice of colors, but despite this his patrons were pleased with his work, often remarking on how accurate the portraits were and how quickly he worked. Indeed, by all accounts, he took to painting with the same patience and conviction he’d displayed with all his previous professions, allegedly painting as many as twenty-five pictures in less than a month. Very soon, he had established a very large client base.

In 1834 Bingham visited Columbia, Missouri, where he found some of his more renowned patrons, among them Colonel Caleb S. Stone (1834), Judge Waren Woodson (1834) and Hon. Josiah Wilson (1834) and most importantly, Major James S. Rollins (1834). Rollins, a young lawyer, and Bingham became fast friends. The lawyer was very impressed with Bingham’s work and agreed to lend him enough money to travel to St. Louis to study painting. This was something Bingham had been hoping to do for a while, even attempting to reach St. Louis by foot on one occasion, but that journey had been cut short by an untimely case of the measles.

He arrived in St. Louis sometime in 1836. It is presumed that he took this opportunity to study under local artists, however none of his mentors of this time period are known. His perpetual state of poverty may have even prevented him from receiving much training, and it’s quite likely that much of his time was spent painting portraits for various patrons to pay for his room and board. He returned to Boonville later that year, where he married Miss Elizabeth Hutchinson and they both settled in a small brick house he built with his own hands.

For the first few months of the following year Bingham was preoccupied with more portraiture, with patrons including Dr. Anthony W. Rollins (1837) and his wife Mrs. Anthony W. Rollins (1837), Mr. Lamme (1837) and his wife Mrs. David Steele Lamme together with their little son (1837), Hon. Roger North Todd (1837) and General Richard Gentry (1837). However, perhaps his most famous portrait from this time was a miniature of Columbia College’s first president, Mr. Thomas Miller (1837). It is Bingham’s smallest known painting.

Later that same year, the young artist traveled to Philadelphia to study art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, which was then the oldest and most prosperous art institute in the country. How long exactly Bingham stayed at the academy is a matter of debate among historians, with estimates ranging from three months to three years. Several portraits of residents from his county, however, the earliest of which, the portrait of Mrs. Thomas Shackelford, is dated 1839, suggest that he returned home within two years’ time.

In 1840 Bingham took active part in a presidential campaign in Missouri, which at the time was a high-interest affair in the state due to its being very politically divided. The campaign generated numerous rallies, drawing people from many miles around. Bingham participated as a speaker in one of the largest of such rallies, held at Rocheport, Boone County. While there, he drew numerous sketches of the people around him, many of which he would later work into bigger compositions. It is also believed that he drew a portrait of his wife, Mrs. Elizabeth Hutchinson Bingham (1840), during this time.

Later that year Bingham traveled to Washington hoping to find patrons amongst members of Congress and the government, who had always provided important patronage for artists in the US. Sure enough, his studio attracted a fair number of people, despite its somewhat isolated location, including a handful of famous names, like Andrew Jackson (1840s), John Quincy Adams (1844), Daniel Webster (1840s), William Walker (1840s), Martin Van Buren (1840s), Henry Clay (1840s), John C. Breckenridge (1840s), John Caldwell Calhoun (1840s) and James Buchanan (1840s).

Four years later found Bingham back in Missouri. Having met with great success in his trip to Washington, the artist had accumulated enough money to feel secure in trying his hand at the less profitable, but according to him less dreary, genre painting. Some of his earliest known works in this field are the four paintings Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845), The Concealed Enemy (1845), Cottage Scenery (1845) and Landscape (1845). His first well-known work, Jolly Flatboatmen, is believed to have also been started in late 1845, but was only finished in early 1846. It was followed soon after by Boatmen on the Missouri (1846) and Landscape with Cattle (1846).

The same year Bingham found himself inadvertently tangled up in politics. Although he did not seek office at first, he proved to be a natural leader and excellent public speaker. This, combined with his outspoken personal political views, resulted in his running for Congress, for the Whig party. He narrowly beat his Democratic opponent, E. D. Sappington, in the elections and took a seat in the House of Representatives. Bingham reportedly made a witty, perhaps even cynical, politician, however his term in office was rather short-lived, as Sappington accused him of rigging the vote. Bingham’s earlier studies in the field of law paid off in the following days when he chose to serve as his own attorney, but although the evidence he gathered indicated that here was nothing wrong with the elections, the Democratically-dominated House ruled in Sappington’s favor. The artist thus had to give up his seat and promptly returned to Missouri.

Not much is known about Bingham’s activities in 1847-48 other than that he once more took up painting, both as a profession and a pastime. Lighter Relieving a Steamboat Aground and Raftsmen Playing Cards, the former of which has been alternately referred to as Watching the Cargo, are both believed to have been done sometime in late 1847 to early 1848. Also from this period are In a Quandary, a lithography which bears a lot of resemblance to Raftsmen Playing Cards, an 1848 portrait of one Dr. Oscar F. Potter, whom Bingham employed as a model to capture the poses of numerous characters in his genre paintings, and Stump Orator, one of Bingham’s first politically-themed works. That year, his wife Elizabeth, who had long been in poor health, succumbed to her disease and died.

In the summer of 1848, Bingham was again offered to run for the House of Representatives. Hesitant at first, the artist accepted the nomination only after learning that he’d be running against his old rival, Sappington. Eager to best the Democratic nominee after the judicial affair from two years ago, Bingham ran and was elected by an indisputable majority, thus securing himself a seat in the House which could not be challenged on grounds of election-rigging as before.

During his second time in office Bingham wasn’t as active a speaker as he had been previously, but still served in a number of committees, perhaps the most important of which was that of Federal Relations. A majority report issued by the committee during Bingham’s tenure concluded that Congress had no right to interfere with slavery in the Southern states. The young artist himself, however, was opposed to the opinion, and believed that slavery should be decided on the federal level – which effectively indicated abolitionist sympathies.

Despite the busy life of a Congressman, Bingham did not abandon painting completely. At least three of his paintings, St. Louis Wharf (1849), Woodyard (1849) and County Politician (1849) are attributed to this time period. Two other paintings, Captured by Indians and Belated Wayfarers, apparently signed and dated by Bingham as 1849, have been accused of being counterfeits, as Bingham never signed or dated any of his other works. In September of that year Bingham went so far as to take a break from his legislative duties and moved to Columbia, Missouri, where he set up a portrait studio. There he met and married his second wife, Eliza K. Thomas.

During the next handful of years Bingham went back to genre painting, producing such critically-acclaimed works as Shooting for the Beef (1850), alongside a number of less well-known paintings like The Wood-Boat (1850), Trapper’s Return (1850), Cattle Piece (1850), The Squatters (1850), Fishing on the Mississippi (1850) and Mississippi Fisherman (1851). Perhaps his most famous paintings from this time were County Election (1852) and Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers Through Cumberland Gap (1851-52), the latter of which was priced at close to six hundred dollars and raffled off at two dollars a ticket despite local laws prohibiting lottery. However, although his works were valued quite highly, Bingham found the market for them wasn’t lucrative enough to comfortably support himself and his family off of genre painting alone, so in 1851 he traveled to St. Louis in search of more clients for portraits.

The artist remained in St. Louis until the spring of 1852. Shortly thereafter, in the summer of that year, he went to Baltimore as part of a delegation to the Whig national convention, although his trip was probably motivated more by the opportunity of expanding the market for his paintings than any political prospects. Bingham stayed in Baltimore after the convention to exhibit his works several times before traveling to other cities to do likewise, eventually selling the aforementioned County Elections for a remarkable one thousand dollars after showcasing it in New Orleans. The highly successful sale encouraged the artist to draw more paintings based around the theme of elections, including Stump Speaker (1853-54) and The Verdict of the People (1854-55).

From late 1855 to early 1856 Bingham painted primarily portraits, first in Columbia and later in Jefferson City, where he set up a studio in the Capitol. It was sometime during this period that he began working on his renowned painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, which he would continue to work on and off for the next eighteen years.

Around the spring of 1856, the young artist left for Europe together with his entire family, which then consisted of his second wife, a son and a daughter. Although he visited some of the European capitals, including Berlin, Paris and London, most of his time there was spent in Düsseldorf, a minor German town, which was a favorite stopping point amongst American genre and landscape painters of the time. While abroad he continued to work on genre paintings and portraits, even receiving commissions from the United States to make full-size portraits of Washington and Jefferson for the Capitol building in Missouri. It was also during his excursion to Europe that Bingham began painting a second version of The Jolly Flatboatmen (1857).

The artist returned for a short while to the United States in early 1859 and almost immediately upon arrival received two more commissions for an equestrian portrait of Andrew Jackson and a full-size portrait of Henry Clay, for which he was paid three and a half thousand dollars. He stayed for a short while in Brunswick, Missouri, working on portraits, before once more sailing back to Europe in May of the same year. His second stay there was cut short, however, by the death of his wife’s father in June and the growing political tensions back home, as the country headed towards Civil War. While in Europe he had started working on a full-length portrait of naturalist and philosopher Baron von Humboldt, but due to the unexpected turn of events only managed to finish it after his return to America.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861 Bingham sided with the Union. He moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where he served as the captain of a militia battalion that was formed to replace the metropolitan police force, which had ceased obeying the mayor and generally had very pro-Confederate sentiments. During this year the artist was inspired to paint General Nathaniel Lyon and General Frank P. Blair Starting from the Arsenal Gate in St. Louis to Capture Camp Jackson in honor of the seizure of Camp Jackson by Union forces. In early 1862, the militia company at Kansas City was combined with the command of one Colonel Mulligan later that year, and Bingham resigned his position as captain in favor of the duty of State Treasurer of Missouri, his predecessor having been removed from the position after refusing to swear allegiance to the Union.

Although Bingham himself did swear fealty to the Union, he considered his loyalty lay foremost with the people. He was thus perhaps one of a few politicians who, during this time, cherished integrity more than the cause of victory or personal comfort and refused to turn a blind eye to the wrongdoings of Union military officers, bringing numerous men to trial for robbery, embezzlement and other forms of corruption. He also resisted taking advantage of legal loopholes in redeeming government-issued bonds which would have gained him a fortune, despite several bankers urging him to do so. Perhaps his strongest feud was with General Ewing because of the latter’s Order No. 11, which, in an attempt to stem the epidemic of marauding gangs making cross-border raids on the border counties in Missouri, ordered the evacuation of said border counties altogether, displacing thousands of people. The ill-conceived order resulted in the gangs attacking fleeing refugee caravans, posing as Union officers enforcing Order No. 11, killing people, plundering their houses and stealing carriages with their entire livelihoods. Bingham had initially implored Ewing to cancel the order, but his request was denied and this, along with several other offences he believed the general to have committed, made the artist swear that he would “make [Ewing] infamous with pen and brush.”

Bingham’s term as State Treasurer expired in 1865, upon which he moved to Independence, Missouri. True to his word, he shortly thereafter began working on Order No. 11 to vilify Ewing, although he did not finish the painting until 1868. He pursued the vendetta determinedly, making sure that the painting was showcased to thousands, especially during Ewing’s run for governor of Ohio. Bingham also published many articles in the newspapers besmirching Order No. 11 and the general, and is considered to have been instrumental in bringing about Ewing’s defeat in the elections.

Bingham dove back into politics shortly after the end of his term as State Treasurer, running for a seat in Congress in 1866 as a Democrat, his affiliation having shifted from the Whig Party following the Civil War. It wasn’t until 1868, however, that he finally got nominated. As the war was now over and his political duties no longer demanded as much of his attention as before, Bingham once again took up painting, as well as gardening and beekeeping, in his free time. Some of his works from this time are the portrait of his son, Rollins Bingham (1867), that of a small child, John J. Mastin, and the child’s father, Thomas H. Mastin (1869).

In spring of 1870 Bingham sold his house in Independence and moved to Kansas City, where he would reside for the rest of his life, although he would still make numerous trips outside the city. No longer preoccupied with the garden he’d left behind at Independence, Bingham took in his only known student, Charles P. Stewart. Perhaps his most notable pieces from this period are the portraits and his longtime and probably best friend, Major James S. Rollins (1873) and his wife and daughter, Mrs. James S. Rollins (1873?) and Miss Sallie Rodes Rollins (1873), respectively. Also from this period is the portrait of General Frank P. Blair (1871). In addition to all of the portraiture, the artist made several genre paintings during this time, which took the form of View of Pike’s Peak (1872) and Puzzled Witness (1874).

By 1874 Bingham was selected to serve on the first board of Police Commissioners since the war had ended, during which time he was said to have been completely uncompromising in his enforcement of the law. He took this opportunity to go after a man whom he had already taken to court even before being appointed to his position for the other’s having a gambling house on his premises. Later that year, due to the popular demand of Kansas City residents, he ran for Congress, but withdrew due to his dislike of another candidate, whom he refused to pledge support to in the case that the other won the nomination. Instead, he was appointed Adjutant-General of Missouri the following year. During his time in office he was responsible for investigating numerous fraudulent claims to government compensation for Civil War casualties, whilst making sure that genuine veterans and families of deceased soldiers in Missouri were reimbursed in full.

In 1876 tragedy struck when Mrs. Bingham’s health, already in decline for about a year, took a turn for the worse. She was confined to an asylum for the mentally impaired, where she died on November 3 of the same year.

The following year Bingham helped establish an art school in Missouri, working there as a professor for a number of years, reportedly with a very modest salary. As the job did not require his staying at the university permanently, he took the opportunity to travel and, naturally, work on painting. He spent a short while in Texas in 1878, visiting his daughter. This was also the year that he married his third wife, the widow Mrs. Mattie Lykins. Many of his works from this time are portraits, including a self portrait which he finished in 1877. The last painting he began was that of George Bingham Rollins, son of James Rollins and Bingham’s namesake, which was unfortunately never finished.

In early 1879 Bingham fell seriously ill, first with pneumonia and then cholera, in quick succession. He succumbed to the latter disease and died in his home in Kansas City on July 7, 1879.


George Caleb Bingham: Missouri's Famed Painter and Forgotten Poilitician by Paul Nagel. University of Missouri, 2005

The Painting and Politics of George Caleb Bingham by Nancy Rash. Yale University Press, 1991.

The Paintings of George Caleb Bingham: A Catalogue Raisonne by E. Maurice Bloch. University of Missouri Press, 1986.

The Drawings of George Caleb Bingham, with aCatalogue Raisonne by E. Maurice Bloch. University of Missouri Press, 1975.