Fur Traders Descending the Missouri
Bingham’s paintings were a source of pride in his home state of Missouri. Many of Bingham’s contemporaries felt the “Missouri Artist” possessed a unique ability to capture the rugged character of the American frontier:
"It is well worth while for any one who can appreciate the beautiful displays of art, to pay a visit to the room of MR. WOOLL, on Fourth Street, and look at two paintings there, by Mr. G.C. BINGHAM, better known by the soubriquet of the “Missouri Artist.” They are gems in the art of scenic painting. Mr. BINGHAM has struck out for himself an entirely new field of historic painting, if we may so term it. He has taken our western rivers, out boats and boatmen, and the banks of the streams for his subjects. The field is as interesting as it is novel. The western boatmen are a peculiar class in most of their habits, dress and manners. Among them, often in the same crew, may be found all the varieties of human character, from the amiable and intelligent to the stern and reckless man. In dress, habit, costume, association, mind, and every other particular, they are an anomaly. They constitute a large, interesting, and peculiar class, and in their labors they are surrounded by natural scenery, or accidental occurrences, which lend to their own peculiarities a yet deeper interest. Their employment, the dangers, fatigues and privations they endure – the river and its incidents and obstacles – its wild and beautiful scenery- its banks of rocks, or its snags, sawyers, and sand bars, draw out, as it were, the points of these hardy, daring, and often reckless men."
Anonymous, “Paintings,” Daily Missouri Republican (21 April 1847); reprinted in Sarah Burns and John Davis, eds., American Art to 1900: A Documentary History (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2009), p. 457.
Henry Adams notes that viewers gain a better understanding of Bingham’s Fur Traders by considering it in conjunction with another of his paintings:
“In 1845, Bingham sent four paintings to the American Art Union…Two of these were landscapes which, although sold separately, were evidently intended as a pair. The other two were Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, which Bingham sent under the title ‘French Trader and Half-Breed Son,’ and a representation of an Osage Indian titled Indian Figure – Concealed Enemy (Peabody Museum, Harvard University). I would like to propose that these last two paintings were also conceived as pendants. They are precisely identical in size, were painted at the same time, were sent for sale in New York together, and, with the exception of one painting which is now lost, were Bingham’s first representations of Western scenes. Their subjects form a contrast, opposing the Indian to the frontiersman….
The comparison implicit in Concealed Enemy and Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, between Indian ‘savagery’ and emerging American civilization, had been expressed by Bingham, a year before he executed these works, in a group of banners he painted for a Whig convention held at Boonville, Missouri, in 1844….
Concealed Enemy and Fur Traders Descending the Missouri form a striking contrast. One depicts the rocky bluffs overlooking the Missouri river, the other the river itself. One, with its Indian in war paint hiding in ambush, suggests the danger of the American wilderness, the other, with its dugout almost swamped by the weight of the furs it is carrying, the abundance that could be won from it. Following a convention often found in American paintings of similar subjects, the Indian is shown at sunset, to suggest the passing of his way of life, while the fur traders are shown at dawn.”
Henry Adams, “A New Interpretation of Bingham’s Fur Traders Descending the Missouri,” The Art Bulletin, vol. 65, no. 4 (December 1983): 675-6.
Barbara Novak places Fur Traders within a larger context: the Luminist school of painting:
“George Caleb Bingham’s Fur Traders Descending the Missouri is one of the finest examples of luminist classicism – the ripples in the water extending parallel horizontal accents and stepping planar distinctions back in space. The boat is trapped, as it were, in a block of glass, in which reflections serve as only slightly hazed bilateral anchors to maintain the image in time and space. As in many luminist paintings, the light emanating from the core of the picture becomes palpable, uniting matter and spirit in the single image, and reaffirming a planar organization that is further fortified by the strong geometric angularities of the figures themselves.”
Barbara Novak, American Painting of the Nineteenth Century: Realism, Idealism, and the American Experience (New York: Praeger, 1969), 105-6.