George Caleb Bingham (1811–1879)
The Jolly Flatboatmen, 1877–78
Raised in Missouri, George Caleb Bingham was one of the first American artists to hail from the Western frontier and the first to elevate the region’s colorful character types to the status of high-art subjects. Near the end of his life he returned to one of his best-known themes—river boatmen at leisure, the subject of an 1846 painting that catapulted him to fame (The Jolly Flatboatmen, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC). The Terra Foundation’s picture follows the earlier work in subject and composition, but here the artist suppressed several details and dramatically altered the pose of the dancer, who dominates the group. By 1877, such a scene of river life could only be viewed nostalgically. Steamboats had long supplanted barges and flatboats, the railroad had begun rendering water transport obsolete, and the river hand was a figure of the past. In this painting, Bingham revisited the bygone times of his native region.