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Bingham's boatmen

EXCEPT for periods of economic depression, American support for the visual arts has been growing for at least the past hundred years. Today an American artist has a chance to become fashionable and at least moderately well off before reaching the age of 30. It was not ever thus. When George Caleb Bingham painted ``Boatmen on the Missouri'' in his mid-30s, he had achieved a modest success as a portraitist, and he had only the slimmest chance of earning money by doing more ambitious work. Portraiture remained his bread-and-butter occupation throughout his career. But his paintings of boatmen are among the glories of American art, and he was enabled to paint them largely because of the patronage he received from a remarkable organization, the America Art-Union.

During the years of the Art-Union's existence, from 1839 to 1851, artists desired to create a peculiarly American art with American subject matter, and many ordinary citizens desired to support it, but the necessary institutions were lacking. The United States had very few art schools, art exhibitions, museums, or art dealers. If it is now easier for American artists to sell their work, that is arguably because the public is more sophisticated, but also because it has become easier to learn about art, see it, and buy it.

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At a time when there was almost no patronage except for portraits, the Art-Union was set up to buy the work of American artists and bring it to the American people. Annual dues were $5, not a trifling sum but easily within the reach of the middle class. In return each member received a monthly art magazine, one large engraving a year, and five smaller ones.

The Art-Union used its income to buy paintings. Those submitted for consideration were exhibited at the Art-Union's own gallery, in New York City, thereby providing an unusual opportunity for the public to see original works of art. As an added inducement to join, the organization ran a lottery that distributed the paintings and sculptures it bought among the members. At $5 a year it was an attractive package; the Art-Union eventually had more than 16,000 members, in all of the states, Canada, the West Indies, England, and even Bavaria.

Although the selection of members was made by a committee in New York, one of its guiding principles was that ``all artists of the country should be equally regarded, without distinction of birth-place or residence....'' (Bingham lived in Arrow Rock, Missouri, when he made this painting, and it is questionable whether an artist living in a town like Arrow Rock today would have an equal opportunity to be recognized in New York.)

The Art-Union bought from little-known as well as established artists, and reflected a wide variety of tastes and levels of quality. For good or ill, the organization's patronage was representative of what was being done by American artists at that time.

George Caleb Bingham was essentially self-taught. Born in Virginia, he grew up in Missouri, and after being apprenticed as a cabinetmaker, he was inspired to become a painter by meeting an itinerant artist. He began as a painter of signs and portraits.

Although he studied briefly in Philadelphia and in middle age went to Europe to study, his paintings of boatmen reflect the advice given in how-to-do-it books available during the 1830s. Those books proposed to teach the methods of the Old Masters, and one of the most prevalant compositional devices of past centuries was the triangle. (In this painting a rough triangle is formed by the flat-bottomed boat and the men's bodies.) By the time Bingham took up painting, however, the classical style had lost favor; some viewers felt that the stately composition once used for scenes from Greek and Roman antiquity was inappropriate for Bingham's working-class subjects.

If Bingham seemed a little stiff and old-fashioned to some of his fashion-conscious contemporaries, he has since been accepted as one of the finest American artists of the 19th century. In 1846 the Art-Union bought ``Boatmen on the Missouri'' for $100, a good if not lavish price at the time, and awarded it by lot to J.R. Macmurdo, of New Orleans. The painting's future was as democratic as its beginnings. It remained unknown to the official art world until 1966, when it was discovered in the home of George Bergin, a hairdresser, who had kept it under a bed. After it was identified it was bought by Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III, who gave it to the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco.

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In 1852 the Art-Union ceased when its lottery was declared illegal by a New York court. Compared with today's institutions it was an amateurish solution to the problem of supporting art in a young country. In its own day, however, it played a unique role in encouraging American artists to paint the American scene.

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