Hits and Misses

Hits and Misses

Monday, December 23, 2013

Reading Bingham's Painting, "Fur Traders Descending the Missouri"

Doing some genealogical research on my father's side of the family has led me to see this well-known painting in a new way.  My middle name, Hutchison, comes from Nathaniel Hutchison, MD, who left Armagh, Ireland, to settle in Franklin, MO, in the early 1820's.  Today, people refer to Old Franklin and New Franklin, a distinction that puzzled me until I found out that Franklin was devastated by one of the Missouri's frequent floods in the nineteenth century and completely destroyed by a flood in the twentieth century.  Rebuilt, New Franklin is some distance away.

One of Dr. Hutchison's children, Sarah Elizabeth, married George Caleb Bingham, who in 1845 painted Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  By the mid-1840's, the fur trade was in decline.  Not only were the beaver getting trapped out, but silk hats had become fashionable in the 1830's.  The subject matter of Bingham's painting has a certain nostalgic quality:  it portrays not what you would have seen on the river in 1845 but what you would have seen a decade or two before.

In Masterpieces of American Painting (1985), Leonard Everett Fisher comments that Bingham demonstrates an "absolute control over his ideals, subject and tools": "In this everyday scene, he not only managed to express the slow flow of the river, men and boat by the obvious horizontality and simplicity of subject, he actually slows it up even further by the vertical counter-pointings (as in the cat and paddle) and by their watery reflections; and by moving the subject in a right to left direction while we few the art from left to right, our natural reading habit--especially of horizontal matter such as letters and words.  In such a fixed geometry, Bingham envelops his canvas in an atmosphere of tonal laziness and communicates eternal drift" (p. 56).

The sun appears to be getting close to the horizon, outlining the three figures from the rear and casting long shadows that terminate beyond the picture's edge.  Like the sky, the water of the Missouri seems almost limpid, reflecting the maroon trousers and the striped blue and white shirt of the boy and the red and white shirt of his father.

Yet several details undercut the serenity of this peacefully balanced scene.  (The following details I have copied from the reproduction I purchased in the Metropolitan's Museum Shop, so the color values are not identical.)  One detail that undercuts the seemingly peaceful scene is the father's expression.  In contrast to the boy's bemused smile, the father glowers in our direction.

Another unsettling detail is the duck on the bale of furs.  Quite literally a dead duck, it is lying on its back to show it was shot squarely in its breast.  Indeed, the rifle can be seen tucked under the boy's near arm, together with his rifle case and decorated shooting bag.

The most disturbing element, however, is easily overlooked, and that can only have been deliberate on Bingham's part.  Bingham makes good use of triangular elements in his composition:  the broken one formed by the canoe, the boy, and his father is echoed in the smaller one of the bale of furs, the boy's back and head, and the interrupted line to the dead duck.  The three snags protruding through the surface at first glance appear to emphasize these triangles by containing the dugout canoe.

The downstream snag lies beyond the bow, nearly parallel to it.  The upstream one is farther away and neatly reverses the angle of the stern. The remaining snag, itself an even smaller triangle, is just upstream of the boy's head.  But then a closer look reveals yet another snag, one on the far side of the canoe and almost equidistant between the two figures.

Trying to understand why my ancestor Dr. Hutchison had decided to live in Franklin, I discovered two facts.  The first was that Franklin then was the jumping off point for the Santa Fe Trail and the Rocky Mountain fur trade.  The second, emphasized in every contemporary account I read, was that the Missouri River was notorious for its deadly snags and sandbars.  Reading about those hazards reminded me of a passage in Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, and after some skimming I found it in Chapter IX, "Continued Perplexities."  In this chapter, Twain describes the almost paralytic terror he experienced the first time he was given the wheel of the steamboat.  He had to confess he was incapable of reading the water, and even the experienced pilot Mr. Bixby (who knew all too well about Twain's arrogant ignorance) could not tell him how to do it--only that he would learn how to do it in time.

Mr. Bixby was correct, Twain continues, for he eventually did learn how to read the river:  "The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book--a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. . . .  The passenger who could not read it was charmed with a peculiar sort of faint dimple on its surface (on the rare occasions when he did not overlook it altogether); but to the pilot that was an italicized passage; indeed, it was more than that, it was a legend of the largest capitals, with a string of shouting exclamation points at the end of it; for it meant that a wreck or a rock was buried there that could tear the life out of the strongest vessel that ever floated.  It is the faintest and simplest expression the water ever makes, and the most hideous to a pilot's eye."

This contrast between the faint dimple on the surface and its hidden and hideous significance is central, I would argue, to Bingham's Fur Traders Descending the Missouri.  It helps to account for the differences in expression between the boy and the father.  Almost too obviously, the boy is associated with innocence; the father, with experience.  As Twain declares, "In truth, the passenger who could not read this book [of the river] saw nothing but all manner of pretty pictures in it, painted by the sun and shaded by the clouds, whereas to the trained eye these were not pictures at all, but the grimmest and most dead-earnest of reading matter."  To the untrained eye, Twain continues, the river presented "graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring."  That is what the eye of innocence sees and is charmed by--it is what the boy sees, and it is what critics like Fisher have described so eloquently as this painting's "atmosphere of tonal laziness" and "eternal drift."

But is that all we should see in Bingham's painting?  Surely not.  A closer, careful look will reveal that snags are everywhere.  For example, look beyond the bear cub in the bow:

In these terms, the snags enclosing the canoe suggests that the boy's carefree expression and his relaxed posture express an innocence close to foolhardiness  If his glowering father were not reading the river and guiding the canoe accordingly, not only would their furs be lost but they too would be as dead as that duck.  There's no question Bingham was aware of these dangers:  his brother had drowned in the Blackwater River, and his grandfather had drowned in the Missouri River.  The boy may be seeing all manner of pretty pictures, but what the father recognizes is altogether different. He has good reason to look grim.

Bingham's Fur Traders Descending the Missouri is a wonderful example of a painting which rewards close observation.  I therefore can only disagree with John Francis McDermott, who in his magisterial George Caleb Bingham:  River Portraitist (1959) declares that this painting "'means' nothing:  it is only a record of life" (p. 189).  No:  Bingham's Fur Traders Descending the Missouri is a record of life in the midst of potential death--and those snags are indeed threatening for those who do observe them.  Bingham has managed to have it both ways:  the painting represents a nostalgic look at a vanishing way of life, one bathed in an almost limpid light, yet, for those like Mark Twain who can read the river, it reminds us emphatically of the dangers lurking just below the surface.  It remains a masterpiece of American painting, but for reasons that art historians in their bemused innocence have missed altogether.


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