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The County Election
Artist / Maker: George Caleb Bingham, 1811 - 1879
Collection: American Art
Date: 1854
Classification: Prints
Medium: hand-colored engraving with glazes
Dimensions: Frame: 32 x 38 1/2 in. (81.3 x 97.8 cm) Image: 22 x 30 in. (55.9 x 76.2 cm)
Credit Line: Gift of Barbara B. Millhouse
Credit Line Reproduction: Reynolda House Museum of American Art
Rights & Reproductions Information
Object Number: 1983.2.37
This object is currently on view.
Description
Beginning in the late 1840s, the Missouri artist George Caleb Bingham took as his subject the exercise of American democracy. In a series of paintings depicting crowds gathered to hear political speeches, politicians personally appealing for votes, and the public announcement of election results, Bingham wryly critiqued the political process as it was experienced on the local level.
By the time he embarked on this series of paintings, Bingham, a committed Whig, had gained first-hand knowledge of political dealings. His first campaign for the Missouri State Legislature in 1846 had been unsuccessful, leading him to swear off politics forever, but he could not stay away for long. He ran again, successfully, in 1848 and held numerous other political appointments and offices over the next three decades. Between 1847 and 1854, politics occupied him on the canvas as well.
In The County Election, painted 1851–1852, engraved 1854, a group of men has gathered to cast their votes by verbal declaration. Bingham masses the figures in a frieze across the canvas, creating a diagonal at right by arranging some of the citizens on the stairs leading up to a porch where they will cast their votes. The facades of the town’s buildings, opening up at left to reveal a glowing blue sky, form a well-ordered backdrop for the jam-packed scene of voters.
In the crowd, Bingham combines different telling vignettes, often metaphorical, to create an amusing narrative. In the foreground, boys play mumble-the-peg, another contest in which the outcome is still unknown. At the far left, a portly grinning man holds out his glass, to be filled with cider by a non-voting African American. The tippler’s flushed face and sprawling pose suggest that it is not his first glass. Behind him, a political operative lugs to the polling place the inert form of a man who has already consumed too much cider. This detail makes clear that the statement on the banner, “The will of the people the supreme law,” is meant ironically, since the unconscious man is incapable of exercising his will at the moment. At right, a battered figure, perhaps having come to blows over a political disagreement, hangs his head.
Bingham contrasts the evidence of vice in the scene with other moments of quiet conversation and debate. Just below the porch, a pair of humble citizens listen attentively as a third gestures to make a point. Others read the newspaper or greet friends. Bingham does not make the politician—who is simultaneously doffing his elegant hat and appealing for votes—the focal point of the painting. Instead, the viewer’s eye is drawn from one vignette to the next in order to read the narrative as a whole.
The painting, in the collection of the Saint Louis Art Museum, was well received by critics at the major Missouri newspapers, and Bingham was convinced that the subject was so appealing that the painting and subsequent engravings of the image could easily find a national audience. [1] He enlisted the help of his friend James Rollins, an influential statesman, to make the case to the American Art-Union that they should purchase the painting. Rollins wrote, “It is a National painting, for it presents just such a scene as you would meet with on the Aroostock in Maine, or in the City of New York, or on the Rio Grande in Texas, on an election day…. Bingham has left nothing out, the courtier, the politician, the labourer, the sturdy farmer, the ‘bully’ at the poles [polls], the beerseller, the bruised pugilist, and even the boys playing ‘mumble the peg’ are all distinctly recognized in the group…. But this is not the point of view in which its excellence is to be regarded. The elective franchise is the very corner stone, upon which rests our governmental superstructure and as illustrative of our fine institutions, the power and influence which the ballot box exerts over our happiness as a people, the subject of this painting was most happily chosen, and executed with wonderful skill by its gifted author.” [2]
This appeal to the Art-Union, however, was not successful; the organization, by then close to dissolution, declined to purchase the canvas. Bingham instead took the painting to the engraver John Sartain (1808–1897) in Philadelphia. An Englishman by birth, Sartain immigrated to America in 1830 and established a successful engraving practice. He engraved paintings by Benjamin West, John Neagle, and Thomas Doughty, among others. In 1848, he launched Sartain’s Magazine as a vehicle for the publication of his engravings. [3]
Bingham reported that Sartain was so enthusiastic about the prospect of engraving The County Election that he reduced his fee in order to take on the commission. [4] But Bingham had a number of special requests for the engraver, which complicated the project. Bingham directed Sartain to change the name of the newspaper in the lower right from the “Missouri Republican” to “The National Intelligencer,” a Washington paper. As Bingham wrote, “There will [thus] be nothing to mar the general character of the work, which I design to be as national as possible—applicable alike to every Section of the Union, and as illustrative of the manners of a free people and free institutions.” [5]
Art historians have debated Bingham’s attitude to the group of citizens depicted in The County Election. Some have suggested that Bingham’s affiliation with the Whig party, generally regarded as elitist, anti-populist, and anti-Jacksonian, indicates his sneering disregard for the masses assembled in the scene. Others have asserted that the benign blue sky and the well-balanced composition are meant to convey a sense of the orderly workings of democracy, even in the presence of misbehavior.
Executed during an explosive period in the nation’s history, when the debate over slavery threatened to tear the country apart, Bingham’s painting and the print based on it include one detail that reveals a clue to his sympathies: a sign in the distance that reads “Union Hotel.” Created by a Whig politician who was himself ambivalent about the issue of slavery, The County Election makes the case that the preservation of the Union trumps all other political concerns.
Notes:
[1] Elizabeth Johns, American Genre Painting: The Politics of Everyday Life (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1991), 97.
[2] James Rollins, quoted in Johns, American Genre Painting, 97.
[3] Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Artists (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1979), 319–320.
[4] Michael E. Shapiro, et al., George Caleb Bingham (New York: Abrams, 1990), 33.
[5] Bingham, quoted in Johns, American Genre Painting, 98.
Artist Bio
Known for capturing scenes of life on the rivers and in the towns of his home state of Missouri, George Caleb Bingham (1811–1879) created a romantic, humorous, and appealing vision of the West during a time when exploration and settlement of the region were increasing. A contemporary critic described his work as “truly American and decidedly original.” [1]
Although he is called “the Missouri artist,” Bingham was born in Virginia. At the age of seven, he moved with his family to Franklin, Missouri, where his father operated an inn and tavern. It was there that Bingham, while still a boy, met the artist Chester Harding, in Missouri to paint a portrait of Daniel Boone. Bingham spent some time serving as an assistant in Harding’s studio, an experience which left a deep impression. [2] His father’s death in 1823 changed the family’s fortunes. His mother moved to a farm near Arrow Rock, Missouri, where she operated a school and where Bingham likely gained his limited education. [3] At age sixteen, he was apprenticed to a cabinetmaker; he also tried his hand at sign painting. It is unclear what exactly prompted his first forays into portrait painting, but, by the early 1830s, he had an active patronage base of judges and doctors in the thriving towns along the Missouri River. His early portraits demonstrate an assured handling of the figure which sets Bingham apart from the self-taught folk artists of his day. He soon felt confident enough in his artistic abilities to add landscape to the subjects he could paint.
In 1838, Bingham traveled to Philadelphia and New York. At the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, he saw painting exhibitions, studied and drew, and purchased plaster casts to transport back to Missouri in order to improve his drafting abilities. [4] During his visit east, Bingham was exposed to genre art, or scenes of everyday life, perhaps in paintings by William Sidney Mount. The experience inspired him to capture life in Missouri as Mount had life on Long Island, New York. Bingham returned to Missouri in 1840 and began to paint genre scenes of his home state in earnest.
His first notable success came in 1845, with Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The painting depicts two figures in a boat: a French trapper, likely down from Canada, and his son who float on a serene river under a luminous sky. The boy’s fringed pants and shiny black hair communicate his exotic parentage; indeed, Bingham originally titled the painting “French Trapper and his Half-Breed Son.” The chained bear cub works to exoticize the subject matter still further. Bingham sold the painting to the American Art-Union in New York, where it attracted the attention of eastern viewers with its intriguing depiction of the American frontier.
Bingham’s relationship with the American Art-Union blossomed. Between 1845 and 1852, twenty of his paintings were distributed in the Art-Union lottery, and The Jolly Flat Boat Men, Manoogian Collection, was engraved for distribution in 1847. When the organization disbanded in 1852, Bingham had trouble finding skillful engravers and reliable distribution networks for his paintings. [5]
Fur Traders Descending the Missouri and The Jolly Flat Boat Men represent one of the themes important to Bingham’s work: the life of the river men, whose nomadic existences and carefree pastimes struck contemporary viewers as both appealing and exotic. Bingham’s second major theme, the political process as it played out in small towns in the West, found equally appreciative audiences. In a series of paintings that included Canvassing for a Vote, 1851–1852, Stump Speaking, 1853–1854, and The Verdict of the People, 1853–1854, Bingham captured the humorous vignettes that accompanied the democratic process.
It was an arena he knew well, as an active member of the Missouri Whig party. Given the distasteful results of Bingham’s first political campaign in 1846, in which he won a seat in the Missouri State Legislature only to have the seat stripped by the Democratic-controlled body, it is perhaps surprising that Bingham returned to politics at all, either in life or in art. He said of his experiences at the time, “As soon as I get through with this affair, and its consequences, I intend to strip off my clothes and bury them, scour my body all over with sand and water, put on a clean suit, and keep out of politics forever.” [6] Nevertheless, he served in public office four times: as a member of the Missouri legislature in 1848, as state treasurer in the 1860s, as president of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners in 1874, and as adjutant general of Missouri in 1875. [7] And, when he was not involved personally with politics, he mined the subject for some of his most arresting and amusing canvases.
Always ambitious, Bingham traveled periodically in an effort to improve his art and expand his patronage—to Washington, D.C., to seek commissions from the Whig-controlled government in the 1840s, to Philadelphia and Paris to engage competent engravers for the distribution of his paintings, and to Düsseldorf for study between 1856 and 1858. He always returned to Missouri and to his family; he was married three times and fathered several children.
Bingham spent his later years painting portraits and attempting to market prints after his paintings. In addition to his political appointments, he served as an art instructor at the University of Missouri at Columbia, an institution founded by his friend and benefactor James Rollins. Despite his stated belief that art should express “the grand and beautiful in nature,” Bingham is best known for his lively, amusing, and wry depictions of rural and small-town life in antebellum America. [8]
Notes:
[1] New York Express, in Jefferson City Metropolitan, August 17, 1847, quoted in Barbara Novak, American Painting of the Nineteenth Century, 2nd ed. (New York: Harper and Row, 1979), 153.
[2] Leah Lipton, “George Caleb Bingham in the Studio of Chester Harding, Franklin, Mo., 1820,” The American Art Journal16 (1984), 90–91.
[3] John F. McDermott, George Caleb Bingham: River Portraitist (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959), 15.
[4] Nancy Rash, The Painting and Politics of George Caleb Bingham (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991), 12.
[5] Michael E. Shapiro, et al., George Caleb Bingham (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990), 31.
[6] Shapiro, Bingham, 44.
[7] Bingham, quoted in Barbara S. Groseclose, “Painting, Politics, and George Caleb Bingham,” The American Art Journal10 (1978), 5.
[8] Bingham quoted in Shapiro, Bingham, 48.
Published References & Bibliography
Published References:
Guhin, Jeffrey. "Democracy and the Passions," The Hedgehog Review, Summer 2017, Vol. 19 no., pg 113.
Richter, Hedwig. Moderne Wahlen Ein Geschichte der Demokratie in Preuben und den USA im 19. Jahrhundert. Hamburg: Hamberger Edition, 2017. Pg. 180.
Bibliography:
Adams, Henry. “A New Interpretation of Bingham’s Fur Traders Descending the Missouri.” Art Bulletin 65 (1983): 675–680.
Adams, Henry. “Bingham and His Sources.” Art Bulletin 66 (1984), 515.
Behrendt, Stephen C. “Originality and Influence in George Caleb Bingham’s Art.” Great Plains Quarterly5 (1985): 24–38.
Bloch, E. Maurice. “Art in Politics.” Art in America33 (1945): 93–100.
Bloch, E. Maurice. The Drawings of George Caleb Bingham. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1975.
Bloch, E. Maurice. George Caleb Bingham: A Catalogue Raisonné. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1967.
Bloch, E. Maurice. George Caleb Bingham: The Evolution of an Artist. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1967.
Bloch, E. Maurice. The Paintings of George Caleb Bingham. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1986.
Brooks, George R. “George Caleb Bingham and ‘The County Election.’” Missouri Historical Society Bulletin 21 (October 1964): 36–43.
Bryant, Keith. “George Caleb Bingham: The Artist as a Whig Politician.” Missouri Historical Review 59 (1964–1965): 448–463.
Burnham, Patricia M., and Lucretia H. Giese, eds. Redefining American History Painting. new York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Casper, Scott. “Politics, Art, and the Contraditions of a Market Culture: George Caleb Bingham’s Stump Speaking.” American Art 5, no. 3 (Summer 1991): 26–47.
Christ-Janer, Albert. George Caleb Bingham: Frontier Painter of Missouri. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1975.
Christ-Janer, Albert. George Caleb Bingham of Missouri: The Story of an Artist. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1940.
Cicovsky, Nicolai, Franklin Kelly, and Nancy Rivard Shaw. American Paintings from the Manoogian Collection. Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1989.
Conrads, Margaret C. “Bingham to Benton: The Midwest as Muse.” American Art Review17, no. 1 (Januarty–February 2005): 150–153.
Corn, Wanda. “Coming of Age: Historical Scholarship on American Art.” Art Bulletin 70 (1988): 199–201.
Demos, John. “George Caleb Bingham: The Artist as Social Historian.” American Quarterly 17 (1965): 218–228.
Eu, Stephanie. “Hogarth and Bingham: Differing Visions of the Electoral Process.” Apollo153, no. 471 (May 2001): 20–22.
Groseclose, Barbara S. “Painting, Politics, and George Caleb Bingham.” The American Art Journal 10 (1978): 5–19.
Groseclose, Barbara S. “Politics and American Genre Painting of the Nineteenth Century.” Antiques120 (1981): 1210–17.
Hills, Patricia. The Painter’s America: Rural and Urban Life, 1810–1910. New York: Praeger, 1974.
Husch, Gail E. “Geoge Caleb Bingham’s The County Election: Whig Tribute to the Will of the People.” The American Art Journal 19, no. 4 (1987): 5–22.
Johns, Elizabeth. American Genre Painting: The Politics of Everyday Life. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1991.
Larkin, Lew. Bingham, Fighting Artist: The Story of Missouri’s Immortal Painter, Patriot, Soldier, and Statesman. St. Louis, MO: State Publishing, 1955.
Lipton, Leah. “George Caleb Bingham in the Studio of Chester Harding, Franklin, Mo., 1820.” The American Art Journal16 (1984): 90–91.
Lipton, Leah. A Truthful Likeness: Chester Harding and His Portraits. Washington, DC: National Portrait Gallery, 1985.
Lubin, David. Picturing a Nation: Art and Social Change in Nineteenth-Century America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994.
Mann, Maybelle. The American Art-Union. Otisville, NY: ALM Association, 1977.
McDermott, John F. George Caleb Bingham: River Portraitist. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959.
Miller, Angela. “The Mechanisms of the Market and the Invention of Western Regionalism: The Example of George Caleb Bingham.” Oxford Art Journal15, No. 1 (1992): 3–20.
Miller, David C. American Iconology: New Approaches to Nineteenth-Century Art and Literature. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.
Novak, Barbara. American Painting of the Nineteenth Century. 2d ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1979.
Rash, Nancy. “George Caleb Bingham’s ‘Lighter Relieving a Steamboat Aground.’” Smithsonian Studies in American Art 2 (1988): 17–31.
Rash, Nancy. “New Light on George Caleb Bingham and John Sartain. Print Collector’s Newsletter 25, no. 4 (September–October1994): 135-137.
Rash, Nancy. The Painting and Politics of George Caleb Bingham. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991.
Rogers, Meyric, J.B. Musick, and Arthur Pope. George Caleb Bingham: The Missouri Artist. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1935.
Rusk, Fern. George Caleb Bingham: The Missouri Artist. Jefferson City, MO: Hugh Stephens, 1917.
Shapiro, Michael E. et al. George Caleb Bingham. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1990.
Simonds, May. “Missouri History as Illustrated by George Caleb Bingham.” Missouri Historical Review 1 (1907), 181–90.
Tyler, Ron. “George Caleb Bingham: The Native Talent.” American Frontier Life: Early Western Paintings and Prints. New York: Abbeville Press, 1987.
Weinberg, H. Barbara, and Carrie Rebora Barratt, eds. American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.
Weinberg, Jonathan. “The Artist and the Politician.” Art in America 88, no. 10 (October 2000): 138¬–145.
Westervelt, Robert F. “The Whig Painter of Missouri.” The American Art Journal 2 (1970): 46–53.
Wilson, C.K. “Bingham’s Bear Cub.” Art Bulletin 67 (1985): 154.
Provenance
To 1983
Barbara B. Millhouse, New York, NY and Winston-Salem, NC [1]
From 1983
Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Winston-Salem, NC, given by Barbara B. Millhouse on December 29, 1983. [2]
Notes:
[1] Deed of Gift, object file.
[2] See note 1.
Exhibition History
2010
Virtue, Vice, Wisdom & Folly: The Moralizing Tradition in American Art
Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Winston-Salem, NC (9/18/2010-12/31/2010)
2017
Samuel F.B. Morse's Gallery of the Louvre and the Art of Invention
Reynolda House Museum of American Art (02/17/2017 - 06/04/2017)
Signed, Inscription, Period, Culture
Signed: Inscription:
PAINTED BY C.G. BINGHAM. (lower left, below image, engraved);
ENTERED ACCORDING TO ACT OF CONGRESS IN THE YEAR 1854 BY G.C. BINGHAM, IN THE DISTRICT COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK. (lower center, below image, engraved);
THE COUNTY ELECTION. (lower center, centered in bottom margin, engraved);
PUBLISHED BY GOUPIL & CO. NEW YORK-PARIS-LONDON-BERLIN. (lower center, bottom edge of margin, engraved);
ENGRAVED BY JOHN SARTAIN. (lower right, below image, engraved);
PRINTED BY JAS. IRWIN (lower right, bottom of margin, engraved)
Period:
19th Century
Culture:
American
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