The Art of the Franchise

Article excerpt

"The Artist and the Politician" by Jonathan Weinberg, in Art in America (Oct. 2000), 575 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10012.

Editors in search of American art that depicts voting or political campaigning almost invariably turn to George Caleb Bingham's The County Election (1851-52) or one of his other "election" paintings. While some critics have regarded these works as celebrations of democracy, others have viewed them as attacks. That the paintings lend themselves to both interpretations is an indication of the artist's complex achievement, argues Weinberg, a painter and art historian.

Bingham (1811-79) had firsthand experience with the electoral process as a member of the Whig party who held various government positions in Missouri. Largely self-taught as a painter, he had established himself by 1835 as a portrait painter in that state before he was drawn into politics. He lived in Washington, D.C., from 1840 to 1844, where he painted portraits of several prominent politicians but "failed to get the major public commissions he longed for," Weinberg says. Fame came with his western genre scenes, beginning with Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845). He also began running for state office. Though he narrowly won a seat in the Missouri House of Representatives in 1846, the outcome was contested, and the Democratic-controlled legislature decided in favor of his opponent. In a letter to a close friend, Bingham vowed thenceforth to "keep out of the mire of politics forever." But he ran again in 1848 and won, then lost two years later.

Each of the six "election" paintings that Bingham executed between 1847 and 1854 was meant to stand on its own, Weinberg says. Country Politician (1849) and Canvassing for a Vote (1851-52) show a candidate in intimate conversation with a few voters; Stump Orator (1847), "now lost and known only through a daguerreotype," and Stump Speaking (1853-54) portray another aspect of electioneering; and The County Election and The Verdict of the People (1854-55) "shift attention from the politician to the process of voting. …