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Course: Art of the Americas to World War I > Unit 7

Lesson 5: Realism in the United States

Face to face with the voters: Bingham's Country Politician

George Caleb Bingham's 1849 painting, "Country Politician," captures a unique moment in American history. The artwork, set in Missouri, portrays a politician engaging in intimate, face-to-face discussions, reflecting the grassroots nature of politics at the time. Bingham, a politician himself, uses humor and realism to depict the power of individual decision-making in shaping the nation's future.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Steven] We're in the de Young Museum, part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Looking at a painting by George Caleb Bingham, painted in 1849 and it's called Country Politician. The scene is set in a slightly rough interior. This is not a genteel environment that we might find in the eastern United States, in the cities of Philadelphia or New York. We're in what was then considered the West, this is Missouri. - [Emily] The dominate tones of brown speak to that idea of building something from the ground up. Because they're gathered so closely around that stove it feels like such an intimate gathering. I almost feel invited to join that conversation. - [Emily] The central figure is either the owner of the space or maybe the fat cat that has the most money in the situation. - [Steven] Puffing on his pipe with a bit of a smirk on his face. - [Emily] The man on the right, he's been identified as the politician so we're really wondering, what are they talking about? - [Steven] And when we think about politics now, in the 21st Century, we often think about campaigns that are mediated by television where politics exists at a distance. But this is a very different era and we have a politician who's trying to convince to bring along one person at a time. - [Emily] What's fascinating to me too is that Bingham was a politician. So you can almost imagine him channeling the many faces that he came into contact with as he was doing his own campaigning. - [Steven] And it almost seems that Bingham the painter is making fun of Bingham the politician in the earnestness with which he paints the man on the right. - [Emily] He was an advocate for going back to the ideals of the Revolution that really sat on the power of the people to make choices. And so the importance of how this older gentleman makes a decision becomes the crux of the composition. - [Steven] And it's possible that that man, the oldest of the four figures, is just about the age of the United States itself. He might be about 75. - [Emily] Is this politician going to be effective in winning over the people? - [Steven] Bingham was a representative in the state legislature in Missouri representing the Whig Party. - [Emily] And in Missouri this painting was first displayed at a very crucial point in state politics debate around the Wilmont Proviso which was being voted on in Congress. And this was very contentious, particularly in Missouri which at the time was a slave-holding state. - [Steven] And it's important to remember that in 1849, just a few years before the Civil War, the US had won a victory over Mexico. And so although we were technically purchasing territory from Mexico we had taken it by military force. - [Emily] A resolution in the debate around the Wilmont Proviso was titled the Bingham Resolution. And it displays his political views as being more moderate and really advocating for the populace's opportunity to vote upon whether future states would be slave-holding or free states. - [Steven] And this painting was seen as a kind of enactment of that very retail politics, of that very idea of individuals like the man on the left making up his mind, listening to both sides, weighing these issues, and deciding in his own mind whether or not he would vote for a politician that would represent the Wilmont Proviso or would come down more forcefully on the side of slaveholders. - [Emily] That idea of conversation and debate is really what made this composition nationally important as well when it traveled to New York and it was purchased by the American Art Union. - [Steven] This is a type of painting that we would call genre, that is, it's a scene of everyday events. And this was a type of painting that had become increasingly popular in the mid 19th Century among the American middle classes. And although the middle classes might not've been able to afford this painting, they were able to afford the prints that were made from it. - [Emily] We do see this national narrative about how we as individuals play a role within our political environment. - [Steven] But even given all the seriousness of this subject, this is also meant to be entertaining, it's meant to be funny. Look for instance at the fourth figure. He's turned his back to the conversation although perhaps he's still listening. And he seems to be warming his back against the fire while he reads some of the bills that are posted on the wall. One of those is a circus and I can't help but imagine that Bingham is creating this wonderful relationship between the circus that is performed and the circus that is American politics. (jazzy piano music)