Thursday, 3 February 2011

Bite 52: George Caleb Bingham - Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, 1845

Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, 1845, oil on canvas, 74 x 93 cm
A genre painting created for an urban north-eastern American audience in the mid-nineteenth century. An audience which still viewed the 'frontier' as rustic, naturally splendid, mysterious, and peopled by 'simple folk'. 

Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (originally titled French-Trader and Half-Breed Son, it changed when submitted to the American Art Union) encapsulates this understanding perfectly in a work of profound reduction of composition and palette by an expert of the American genre tradition.

The perpendiculars and diagonals of the men and their reflections fit harmoniously within the sparse surroundings. The overall effect is one of an indelible serenity. 

The figures regard the viewer with solemnity, immersed in their own thoughts, demanding nothing from the viewer and asking that they in turn ask nothing of them. In this sense at least this masterpiece can be seen as lacking the judgment and moralisation prevalent in much genre painting of the period.

In the collection (of over 2 million works) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.