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Thomas Doney after George Caleb Bingham

The Jolly Flat Boat Men, 1847
Hand-colored mezzotint

Published by George S. Appleton, New York

Museum purchase, 1995

George Caleb Bingham (1811–1879) grew up in Franklin, Missouri on the banks of the Mighty Mississippi, where he began his painting career as a self-taught itinerant portraitist. His early works were rather primitive, as was the case for most traveling artists who went from town to town painting portraits and local scenes to earn a living, whereas the more mature local genre works he is most well-known for, like the original 1846 oil painting The Jolly Flatboatmen this etching is after, while intriguing, are rather mathematically and thematically formulaic. 

Bingham was the first major artist to develop west of the Allegheny Mountains, composing a memorable series of paintings that took Western American rivers and boatmen as their subjects. In the eyes of the art collectors and academics back East, though, Bingham’s art was seen as lowbrow due to who and what he was depicting. For them, art was meant to uplift the spirit, to lead viewers’ minds to higher aspirations. His boatmen, in their eyes, weren’t dignified enough.

Bingham’s career out West paralleled that of another important painter at this time, Easterner William S. Mount (1807–1868), whose The Bone Player (1857) is also housed in the WFMA’s permanent collection. With the painterly turn to the American landscape in the early to mid-19th century, as seen in the work of the Hudson River School, American art (a concept still foreign to most people at the time, especially wealthy patrons and collectors) began to see its first gestation on native grounds. As has long been a problem throughout our history, though, the production of large-scale paintings, whether the landscapes of the Hudson River School or the inner-city paintings of the Ashcan School, didn’t necessarily mean that American artists could put bread on the table.

One way that artists were able to begin to make a living was through the support of organizations such as the American Art Union, which, for a modest annual subscription fee of $5.00, distributed an original engraving to each paying member on a regular basis. It was a way to both support American artists and enable average Americans to purchase affordable art for their homes. The Art Union also agreed to purchase a number of paintings from artists whose work they were distributing, including Bingham and Mount, which were in turn distributed by lot at their annual meeting. Bingham sold four paintings to the Art Union between 1844 and 1845, including his famous Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845). Though the Art Union closed its doors in the mid-1850s due to ethical concerns about the lottering off of major paintings, another similar organization opened during the Great Depression called the Association of American Artists, which likewise helped disseminate etchings and lithographs by the next generation of American artists, including Edward Hopper, John Sloan, Grant Wood, and Thomas Hart Benton, all of whom are also represented at the WFMA.

Thomas Doney (1811-1879) was chosen by the AAU to engrave Bingham’s The Jolly Flatboatmen for 1847 distribution, not long after the painting itself was completed. Due to concerns about the subject matter, the leadership decided to ask Doney to employ a particular etching process not often used in America at that time called mezzotint as a way to elevate the look of the image into the realm of “high art.” With mezzotint, the etching plate is first gone over repeatedly with a serrated hand tool called a rocker that produces tiny indentations and raised burrs in the surface. Once the plate is fully rocked, the image is then produced by scraping and burnishing on the rough surface. We can see the end product in Doney’s etching in the velvety-rich dark tones of the water and the woods in the background. New York publisher George S. Appleton printed nearly ten thousand copies of the etching. Most were produced in black-and-white, but some, like the one under discussion, was hand-colored with watercolor.

Along with being a genre painter, Bingham has also been described as a Luminist painter. Luminism was an idealistic mid-19th century aesthetic approach focused on the depiction of light and space. Luminism was about subjectivity, clarity, atmosphere, and classical linearity. According to art historian Barbara Novak,

In a luminist landscape, nature is presented on a smooth, mirror-like surface that shows barely a trace of artistic hand. In removing his presence from the painting, the artist acts as a clarifying lens, allowing the spectator to confront the image more directly and immediately. Perhaps because of the absence of stroke, time stops, and the moment is locked in place—locked even more by strong horizontal organization, by an almost mathematical ordering of planes in space parallel to the picture surface, and by deliberately aligned vertical and occasional diagonal accents. (76)

Although The Jolly Flat Boat Men is an etching based on Bingham’s original oil painting, through Doney’s expertise as an artist, we can still get a sense of the “smooth, mirror-like surface that shows barely a trace of artistic hand” and the way “time stops, and the moment is locked in place” with the dancer mid-step, arms raised above his head. We can also see the “mathematical ordering of planes” and the ordered horizontality and verticality of the men and the boat, not to mention the luminescence of the atmosphere.  

As seen here, Bingham organizes his characters in tightly-packed pyramidal groupings which lead our eyes upwards and back into the distance. Bingham arduously sketched and resketched each of the figures as individual stock studies before, for a lack of the better way to put it, dropping them in one-by-one to fill out the scene, each in equal detail, speaking back to the idea that luminist paintings present a kind of subjective, idealized version of the artist’s inner eye.

Bingham’s subjects are often shown at leisure—fishing, enjoying a pipe, dancing, resting ashore at evening, or cavorting on the docks. While his subject matter was originally deemed non-art-worthy, they are most definitely American. It is interesting that we never see his subjects engaged in the arduous activities of hard manual labor; rather, they are depicted during moments of repose and frivolity.

The status of boatmen in the popular imagination in the 19th century merits mention here. On the one hand, their youth and freedom to drift without ties along the great American waterways was emblematic of American exceptionalism and the pastoral ideal; on the other, as depicted in the 19th century river novels of Herman Melville and Mark Twain, they could also be seen as conniving rapscallions. In either case, Bingham captures his rivermen at a critical historical juncture in American history when steamboats and railroads were usurping their trade.

Whether you see The Jolly Flat Boat Men as a work of pure Americana, or thumb your nose in agreement with its original critics, one thing is certain—the work is iconic. For a much more in-depth exploration of both the etching and painting, as well as the influence they both had on 19th century American, see Nenette Luarca-Shoaf’s, Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River.

Works Consulted

Brown, Jules David. American Painting: From its Beginnings to the Armory Show. Rizzoli, 1980.

Luarca-Shoaf, Nenette and Claire Barry, et al. Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River, Yale UP, 2014.

Novak, Barbara. American Painting of the Nineteenth Century. Oxford UP, 2007.

The Jolly Flat Boat Men from the Permanent Collection of the Wichita Falls Museum of Art at MSU Texas

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