History of Missouri artist and politician, George Caleb Bingham

CJ Coombs

Self-portrait of George Caleb Bingham (b. Mar. 20, 1811, d. July 7, 1879).George Caleb Bingham, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1819, George Caleb Bingham at age nine moved with his family to Franklin, Missouri on the Lewis and Clark trail, from Virginia. His hometown in Missouri was Arrowrock. Throughout his life, he was referred to as "the Missouri artist." He was also a politician. From an early age, Bingham showed an interest in drawing.

In 1823, he lost his father to malaria and due to debts, his mother was forced to leave their home in Franklin for Saline County near Arrow Rock. She ran a school employing an art teacher who gave art lessons to her son. George was one of seven children.

Bingham had three wives, remarrying after his first two wives passed away. He had six children between his first two wives.


Bingham was a wonderfully talented artist. He painted the life of the American frontier along the Missouri River. His paintings reflected the Luminist style.

Just before the outbreak of the Civil War, a handful of landscape painters, instead of painting monumental, dramatic scenes of American wilderness, began painting on a smaller, quieter scale. The Luminist style had much in common with the Transcendentalist writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, which advocated that one immerse oneself in nature in order to know oneself and the divine. (Source.)

Bingham, a self-taught artist, painted portraits for $20 each when he was 19. He gained attention because he was able to capture the likeness of his painting subjects. By 1833, he was earning a living painting portraits.

Preparing to travel to St. Louis, Bingham came down with measles causing him weakness and permanent baldness. He was able to establish a studio in St. Louis in 1838 and he was creating a presence of his work as a portrait artist. Between 1845 and 1860, Bingham created his most important pieces of art. His work included amazing drawings, portraits, landscapes, and scenes of social and political life on the frontier. He was also active in civic affairs and contributed to the political life of Missouri before and after the Civil War.

Bingham and his wife moved to Philadelphia where he spent three years studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He also spent about five years in Washington D.C. painting portraits of politicians. One of the portraits included President John Quincy Adams.

Fur traders descending the Missouri c. 1845, oil on canvas.George Caleb Bingham, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The above painting is one of Bingham's most famous pieces of work that is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This is an example of the Luminism style (the original name of the painting was "French Trader, Half-breed Son"). The painting depicted the frequent marriages between fur traders and Native American Women. Bingham had the ability to "manipulate space and light to heighten the mood of the picture." (Source.)

Boatmen on the Missouri c. 1846 (part of collection of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco).George Caleb Bingham, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The above painting was gifted to the museum by Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III.

Although this painting represents a common scene on the Missouri River, the depiction is far from documentary. Given the nature of their work, woodhawks were typically filthy, and they were often perceived to be crude and unsavory characters. In preparation for his painting, Bingham did not sketch real boatmen, but rather asked his acquaintances to dress in the appropriate costume and posed them in a style similar to that found in Renaissance engravings. (Source.)

And, if you're wondering what a woodhawk is, that's what they used to call the men who were selling chopped and corded wood along the riverbank. Some men actually set up stations for the steamboats to get their wood supply. In the painting, the men are floating the wood out to steamboats.

In 1856 Bingham traveled to Germany so he could study the masters at the Düsseldorf School of Painting, a group of painters whose work is characterized carries tedious attention to detail. Bingham's style was altered after being Influenced by the paintings he saw there.

General Ewing's Order No. 11 of 1863 (painted 1868).George Caleb Bingham, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Bingham's painting above depicts General Thomas Ewing's General Order No 11 which was very controversial, and which Bingham strongly opposed. The order was "a controversial attempt to quell guerrilla warfare along the Missouri-Kansas border." (Source.) Several thousand people would be exiled from their homes in western Missouri. The order related to all persons living in the counties of Jackson Cass, Bates, and northern Vernon, and Bingham felt this was inhumane.


Even though Bingham was born in Virginia, during the war, he dedicated himself to the Union cause. He was a captain of a volunteer company that helped to keep Missouri from joining the Confederacy.


While Bingham was in Columbia painting in 1834, he met an attorney and a politician by the name of James S. Rollins. They became very close friends. Bingham even named one of his sons after him.

The State Historical Society, Manuscript Collection-Columbia contains roughly 100 letters from Bingham to Rollins dating from 1837 to 1879. (Source.)

(Here is a link to a letter transcribed by James Rollins' son, C.B. Rollins, that Bingham sent to Rollins in 1853.)

In September of 1861, Bingham was appointed State Treasurer of Missouri before the American Civil War began and served for four years. He fought against the extension of slavery westward.

Bingham continued to paint more portraits and be involved in politics after the war through political appointments. In 1874, he was appointed president of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners. He appointed the first Chief of Police. In the following year, he was appointed Adjutant-General of Missouri by the governor.

Bingham died on July 7, 1879, at the age of 68, following the year he married his third wife.

The Bingham House in Arrow Rock

According to a National Register of Historic Places Inventory provided by the Department of Natural Resources, the “George Caleb Bingham House was built by the famous painter in 1837 soon after his marriage to Sarah Hutchison. It remained their home until 1845. (Source.)

Over the years, there were changes made to the house. In 1926, a man named Hugh Stephens from Jefferson City bought the house hoping to preserve it. In 1934, it was bought by the state and restored two years later to a one-story two-room brick structure. The Missouri State Park Board restored the house again in 1964-65.

For more interesting information about artist Bingham, see Historic Missourians.

Thank you for reading.

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30 years of legal secretarial experience, and a BA in Eng Journalism & Creative Writing. Thinker, giver, and lover of life. Born into Air Force service life, my life has taken me to Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Missouri. I love family, art, truth, non-fiction, reading, history, and travel.

Kansas City, MO

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