New York

George Caleb Bingham

The Art Galleries

The exhibition of paintings and drawings by George Caleb Bingham (1811–1879) that was held in Washington, Cleveland and finally in the Art Galleries of UCLA was comprehensive and very beautiful. In my opinion Bingham had by far the finest intellect of any American painter—by intellect I mean the ability to elaborate a great abundance of pictorial incident while at the same time subordinating it rigorously to the requirements of an overall design; and while intellect is not the only means to excellence in painting, in certain circumstances it is indispensable, since it alone can give an artist the self-consciousness he needs if he is to make up for deficiencies in other respects—in Bingham’s case, deficiencies of his society and, as a consequence, of the associations of his subject matter. The show was organized by Mr. E. Maurice Bloch of UCLA, whose fundamental monograph on Bingham appeared while the show was going on and in this way provided a very appropriate gloss on the pictures.

Mr. Bloch has concentrated his attention on the series of genre paintings that Bingham did in the decade extending from the mid-1840s to the mid-1850s and that constitute his most enduring work. Despite the folksiness of their subjects, and for that matter the anecdotal treatment of subject, these paintings have always seemed to have a very “classical” quality—the comparison of Bingham with Poussin has been a frequent one—but it was not until the researches of Mr. Bloch that we could realize how, and how much, this impression is correct. He has shown that Bingham based these paintings on a repertory of poses and of compositional types which the artist found in a variety of sources: etchings and lithographs after the work of old and modern masters, instructional books explaining the rudiments of pictorial design and the expression of emotion and character, and casts of ancient sculptures. Bingham’s indebtedness to these sources is general as well as particular. The diagrams in the instructional manuals, for example, emphasized the organization of broad masses and the principal axes of compositions, which in effect they codified into types, and suggested ways in which the detail might be incorporated into the main lines of the composition. The parts themselves Bingham took from works of all kinds: in the second version of Martial Law (Order No. 11), Bingham’s most elaborate effort along these lines, they range from the Apollo Belvedere to Greuze, by way of Masaccio and Fra Bartolommeo; and Bingham’s ability not merely to reproduce them, or even adapt them, but to re-invent them (since what is involved is precisely what in the 17th century was called “invention”) is the clearest measure of his caliber.

It is worth noting that Bingham used his own drawings in the same way as prints of the masters. He was always on the lookout for local color, and in his own time personalities in real life were often identified as the subjects of his drawings, but what gave them force as individuals was the extent to which they could be identified with types, for his local color was intended to register what was typical. The effort was always to grasp the essential, which is to say the generic, which is to say the ideal; and since this is also what the classic masters had done, Bingham could use his drawings as a repertory of motifs on which to draw in the same way as prints after their works. One has also to keep in mind that his sources gave Bingham a model not only for form and the expression of character, but even for ideas in a broader sense. As he wrote to a friend, speaking of plaster casts from the antique, “They are indeed indispensable, as without them the mind of the student cannot be properly imbued with those ideas of grace, elegance and truth which form the basis of genuine art.” We might think it was Reynolds writing, since in both vocabulary and concept the approach is the same—it is that on which the academies of Rome, Bologna and Paris in the 17th century and London in the 18th had been founded, normative and canonical. It may have been developed in a frontier town in a period of breakneck expansion, but its view of the history of art looks backward, and it provides a mirror image of attitudes and methods that characterized the highest moments of European culture. And of course the reason why Bingham developed these attitudes and followed that method was precisely that he was not living in a center of high culture, but on the contrary felt himself so isolated from one. It is not quite what Henry James will do later, but it is very close to Hawthorne.

The question is whether Bingham’s method of referring to the most authoritative canons of thought and expression does not occasion comparisons that overwhelm him. We can recognize that the posture of his Daniel Boone is taken from a Roman copy of the Doryphoros (Spear Bearer), a fifth-century B.C. statue, now lost, by Polykleitos, as the whole motif comes from an engraving after a painting, The Pioneers, by Peter Rothermel (1817–95); but what do Boone and a doryphoros have in common, or Bingham, Rothermel and Polykleitos? I have no great light to shed on this question: either things are very confused or else they are a lot more coherent than anyone thinks they are. It is in any case obvious that Bingham, unlike the European academics, was not consistent in his approach: he would borrow from someone like Rothermel as well as from Polykleitos and did not confine his subject matter to history in the traditional sense. What he was doing was going a couple of steps farther than, say, Delacroix in Liberty Leading the People: he was trying to achieve a version of history painting that was valid for his time and his culture, ennobling, or rather bringing out the nobility he thought was inherent in common subjects by casting them in classical attitudes. But if the values of his culture precluded the values of history painting, his borrowings would be merely incongruous or irrelevant, esthetically faulty because culturally groundless, and what we have to decide is whether or not they are.

I will make one other suggestion, which is really another way of approaching this same issue. It may be important to distinguish between a man’s artistic ability or accomplishment on the one hand and, on the other, the area of experience he was interested in. In a painting, the first tends to be revealed primarily through the treatment, the second through the subject. It appears to me that whether or not Bingham can validly be compared to Raphael or Poussin involves the second rather than the first. There are hundreds of artists of less ability and accomplishment than Bingham whom one may nevertheless talk about in connection with Raphael or Poussin without feeling self-conscious and defensive: the reason is simply that the area of experience in which they were interested, and consequently the subjects they painted, resemble Raphael’s or Poussin’s. Where they do not, as in the case of Bingham, we incline to dismiss other similarities, such as composition, as secondary or even to regard them as blemishes. But since the language of painting is one of forms, where these mirror the masterworks of the European tradition may we not speak of something held in common, in spite of the disparity of the subjects these forms are used to depict? I’m just asking the question.

Jerrold Lanes