The Creative Process behind an American Masterpiece—Bingham’s ‘Fur Traders Descending the Missouri’

The best thing about the exhibition Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (through September 20) is the light it sheds on the creation of Bingham’s wondrous Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845), one of the treasures of the Met’s holdings in American art.

NY Met bingham fur traders


Since that painting happens to be featured in my chapter on “The Pleasures and Rewards of Art—Real Art, That Is” in Who Says That’s Art?, it’s of more than usual interest to me. Revisiting it in this exhibition, highlighting its artistry, heightened my appreciation of Bingham’s achievement.

A mainly self-taught artist, Bingham (1811–1879) was not a brilliant draftsman. But he was an astute observer of life in what was America’s western frontier in the mid-nineteenth century. And as the numerous preparatory drawings in the Met exhibition demonstrate, he succeeded in capturing subtleties of attitude, gesture, and facial expression that vividly evoked the diverse humanity he depicted at work or play along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

In its dreamy evocation of a by-then-dying enterprise, however, Bingham’s Fur Traders far surpasses his customary genre scenes. It was, by all accounts, his masterpiece. Happily, two elements of the Met’s show help to reveal the artistic choices that contributed to the painting’s poetry. One is Bingham’s extant drawing for the figure of the father (identified as such in the painter’s original title, French Trader and Half-Breed Son). The other is infrared evidence regarding Bingham’s initial conception of the scene, as indicated in a small video display next to the painting.

While essentially similar in costume and broad outline to the preparatory drawing, the father in the painting is older and sterner. In addition to adding a gray mustache and beard, Bingham intensified his expression, and adjusted the slightly jaunty angle of his cap to one more emphatically erect. As revealed by infrared examination, the painter also greatly simplified and subtly modified the composition. He eliminated extraneous details such as a flagpost erected between father and son, and minimized tree stumps in the background. Finally, he reduced the size of the bear cub [see Martin Rieser’s Comment below], thereby making the creature more catlike in appearance. In Who Says That’s Art?, I suggested that it conjures up images of ancient Egyptian sacred cats. Though one cannot know if Bingham had such prototypes in mind, if only subliminally, the impression remains indelible for me, contributing to the scene’s aura of mystery.

Remarkably, six years after creating this consummate work, Bingham reprised the subject in The Trappers’ Return—a painting so clumsy in comparison that one might think he was engaging in self-parody. On loan from the Detroit Institute of Arts for the Met exhibition, this relatively pedestrian treatment of the same theme serves as a telling gauge of its predecessor’s mastery.