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    Curated: Boatmen on the Missouri by George Caleb Bingham

    In the de Young Permanent Collection

    George Caleb Bingham’s Boatmen on the Missouri depicts what would have been a common sight for anyone traveling in the West during the mid-nineteenth century: men on a flatboat drifting silently downstream with a load of fuelwood. At that time, nearly all steamboats burned wood in their fireboxes to create the steam that turned their paddle wheels. Steamboats usually only carried enough fuelwood to power the boat for about twelve hours. So, to meet demand en route, men called “woodhawks” sold chopped and corded wood from stations along the riverbank. Some entrepreneurial individuals established wood yards where steamboats could tie up, while others, such as those Bingham represented in this painting, floated chopped wood out to passing steamboats.

    Although this painting represents a common scene on the Missouri River, the depiction is far from documentary. Given the nature of their work, woodhawks were typically filthy, and they were often perceived to be crude and unsavory characters. In preparation for his painting, Bingham did not sketch real boatmen, but rather asked his acquaintances to dress in the appropriate costume and posed them in a style similar to that found in Renaissance engravings.

    Born in Augusta County, Virginia, George Caleb Bingham (1811–1879) moved with his family to Franklin, Missouri, as a young child. Bingham found early success as a portrait painter, but soon branched out into genre and landscape subjects. These paintings afforded him limited success until 1845, when the American Art-Union began to purchase his work, after which he became known as “the Missouri Artist.” Dedicated to stimulating public support for American artists, the American Art-Union ultimately purchased Boatmen of the Missouri for $100, the most Bingham had ever received for a genre painting. After its original purchase, the painting was lost for 120 years until it was discovered to wide acclaim in a California private collection in 1966.