In my Friday post about the St. Louis Art Museum’s (SLAM’s) controversial plan to lend Bingham‘s “The Verdict of the People,” 1854–55, to grace the Jan. 20 Presidential Inauguration Luncheon, I questioned the appropriateness of a museum’s allowing one of its treasures to leave the building not for scholarly and/or public purposes, but as decor for a private event.
As it happens, there’s an available Bingham that’s closer at hand—at the White House:
In his “Masterpiece” column in the Wall Street Journal on Nov. 4 (before SLAM’s trustees had approved the Bingham loan), art historian John Wilmerding, a member of the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, parsed the meaning of the White House’s river scene:
The first fact to mention about George Caleb Bingham as we approach Election Day is that he was both a politician and a painter….For much of his maturity he was involved in state politics….
To express his criticism of the president [James Polk, who had twice vetoed a bill for river improvements that Bingham supported], Bingham in 1847 painted “Lighter Relieving a Steamboat Aground”….The steamboat in the distance has run aground on a sand bar. Near the right bank are the protruding snags of a dead tree, another hazard for river movement, exactly what the River and Harbor Bill was to remedy….It’s even possible he saw the grounded steamer as a metaphor for a disabled ship of state.
In its description of the painting, the White House Historical Association concedes that Bingham’s “Lighter” “may indeed have had a political subtext…[but] his primary focus is on the self-sufficient boatmen, his heroes.”
A reader commenting on Wilmerding’s article discerned another metaphor in the White House painting:
The largest and most central figure stands squarely with his back to the viewer. I can’t recall another painting that shows such rejection of its audience. Perhaps Caleb was emphasizing how much the government had turned its back on the ordinary citizen.
The underlying message of the White House’s Bingham may have been too close for comfort. But as I explained in my previous post, “The Verdict of the People” also has a subversive political subtext for those who take time to look closely—something not likely to happen at an Inaugural Luncheon.