Critical Issues in American Art: A Book of Readings

By Mary Ann Calo | Go to book overview

newspaper editorial published in 1843 can serve as an uncannily evocative description and summary, not only of the character and demeanor of the vast majority of citizens in The County Election, but also of the painting's carefully orchestrated figural composition. The editorial also parallels Bingham's own feelings about unscrupulous politicians, and about the ability of the people to withstand their wiles:

[R]eckless partisans . . . are ever ready to arouse the feelings and prejudices of one class of the community against another, although all intelligent men know that the protection and prosperity of each particular class is necessary for the advancement of the whole and to the preservation of a sound and healthy action of government. Calmness and moderation in thought and action are indispensable to a well-regulated society. However each particular interest may differ, a general harmony, in all the component parts, is requisite to complete the order of the whole. 58

Bingham's own commitment to what Brown has termed "the core values of Whiggery: moderation, self-restraint, rational persuasion, and a positive passion for the common good" 59 is echoed in the figures and forms of The County Election. The work is a vision of harmony conceived by an ardently involved citizen at a time when his country's social fabric was fraying badly. The painting, it would seem, presents an idealized Whig affirmation of egalitarianism rather than a protest against it and is a tribute to, rather than a mockery of, the participation of the American people in their government.


NOTES

Revised by the author from the American Art Journal, vol. 19, no. 4. Reprinted by permission of the author.

1.
L. Maria Child, "Home and Politics," The Union Magazine, vol. III ( July, 1848), p. 66.
2.
The print was published in Harper's Weekly, November 7, 1857, p. 712.
3.
For a discussion of genre paintings with political themes, many dealing with elections, see Barbara S. Groseclose , "Politics and American genre painting of the nineteenth century," The Magazine Antiques, vol. CXX ( November, 1981), pp. 1210-17.
4.
A recently published textbook of American history, for instance, called the paintings in Bingham's Election Series "perhaps the best artistic representations of Jacksonian politics in action." Robert A. Divine , et al., America Past and Present, Volume I: to 1877 (Glenview, Illinois, and London, 1984), between pp. 288-89.

The paintings executed by Bingham which deal with electoral politics (excluding political banners) are: The Stump Orator, 1847 (present whereabouts unknown); Country Politician, 1849, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; The County Election (version one), 1851- 1852, Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, Missouri; The County Election (version two), 1852, Boatmen's National Bank of St. Louis, St. Louis, Missouri; Canvassing for a Vote or Candidate Electioneering, 1851- 1852, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri; Stump Speaking or The County Canvass, 1853- 1854, Boatmen's National Bank of St. Louis, St. Louis, Missouri; The Verdict of the People (version one) or Announcement of the Result of the Election, 1854- 1855, Boatmen's National Bank of St. Louis, St. Louis, Missouri; The Verdict of the People (version two), after 1855, R. W. Norton Art Gallery, Shreveport, Louisiana.

The most important and thorough discussions of Bingham's life and art are: E. Maurice Bloch, George Caleb Bingham: The Evolution of an Artist ( Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1967); Bloch, The Paintings of George Caleb Bingham: A Catalogue Raisonné ( Columbia, Missouri, 1986); and James F. McDermott, George Caleb Bingham: River Portraitist ( Norman, Oklahoma, 1959).

-88-

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