BINGHAM, George Caleb
(b. 1811, Augusta County, d. 1879, Kansas City)

Fur Traders Descending the Missouri

c. 1845
Oil on canvas, 74 x 92 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Bingham was a specialist in subjects drawn from the American countryside, particularly life on the frontier. In this masterpiece of American genre painting, a unique document of river life in the Midwest, he has depicted a moment in the life of a French-Canadian fur trader, one of the voyageurs who combined commerce with exploration and adopted many ways of the wild. Bingham has raised anecdote to the level of poetic drama by setting up a tension between the suspicious stare of the old trader, the unconcerned reverie of his sprawling half Indian son, and the compact, enigmatic silhouette of a tethered bear cub. Parallel planes recede into the distant background, suggesting that Bingham was familiar with engravings of European paintings, yet the strict formality is softened by an exquisite luminosity.