The exhibition, Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River, debuted and ran at the Amon Carter late last year before moving on to St. Louis and is now at the Met in New York. The show of paintings and drawings by the early American artist who provided some of this country’s iconic images of Mississippi and Missouri river life. “Figuratively speaking,” the New York Times said in its highly pleased review in June, “George Caleb Bingham tamed the Wild West. … The results still look very much alive, even radical today.” The show, the first devoted entirely to Bingham’s river art, included both the finished paintings and many of his preparatory drawings, opening up the self-taught painter’s creative process.
In a very considered review in June, the New York Review of Books wondered whether Bingham’s sense of light and life were a little too tied to the state of Missouri’s desire for positive and popular images — and not the cruder, harsher realities.
Yet much as his images mesh with the way the good citizens of Missouri wanted their state to be seen, Bingham’s best work has a life of its own. One feels that his lack of realism about backwoodsmen and raftsmen and the rivers themselves had less to do with not wanting his images to offend than with a lack of interest in the appearance of actual, everyday life to begin with. His art came out of a studious, almost innocent, regard for past artistic achievement.
And now the Times Literary Supplement of London has weighed in enthusiastically (“With the greatest subtlety, Bingham evokes the passing of time” as America was changing before him). The review ends with two unhappy notes: The reviewer finds a couple of the catalog’s essays too boosterish but also concludes, in effect, that we in North Texas may have seen the show in a far better light than it currently appears in New York: Why in the world, he asks, did the Met squirrel away the exhibition “in the bowels of the American Wing in a set of awkward and inelegant galleries. Bingham looks like an afterthought compared with the sumptuous space allotted to an over-extended John Singer Sargent show”?