Some Pictures Truly Are Worth a Thousand Words

Three 19th-century painters help tell America’s rowdy history.
Some Pictures Truly Are Worth a Thousand Words
"The County Election," 1852, by George Caleb Bingham. Oil on canvas; 38 inches by 52 inches. Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri. (Public Domain)
Jeff Minick
2/27/2024
Updated:
2/27/2024
0:00
Look back to the 19th century and we find a good number of men and women whose impact on our country remains vibrant and alive even today. Many consider Abraham Lincoln the greatest of our presidents, and others, in their patriotism and leadership—senators like Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun—stand head and shoulders above many Capitol Hill politicians. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” helped change the course of American history, and many critics regard Mark Twain as the best of all our novelists, with Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson holding that same place of esteem among our poets. Other gifted writers of that time like Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and James Fenimore Cooper remain lodestars in our understanding of American culture and history.

That same century saw a terrible civil war, the emancipation of slaves, and a westward movement of trailblazers, pioneers, and homesteaders that eventually created a nation from sea to shining sea. Many of the cities prominent today were then either expanding their populations or undergoing their birth pangs, portents of a future when far more Americans would live in townhouses and tenements than on farms. It was a century of miners, cowboys, and sailors, of industrialists, salesmen, and inventors, an era of rambunctious elections, restless migrations, and the birth of thousands of small towns.

The writers mentioned above and others like them captured these immense changes in stories and poems. Fortunately, for our understanding of the past and our culture, painters’ canvases also throw open some windows on our rowdy American adolescence. Here are three of them.

The Man From the West

"Self-Portrait," 1834–1835, by George Caleb Bingham. Oil on canvas; 28 3/8 inches by 22 11/16 inches. Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri. (Public Domain)
"Self-Portrait," 1834–1835, by George Caleb Bingham. Oil on canvas; 28 3/8 inches by 22 11/16 inches. Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri. (Public Domain)
George Caleb Bingham (1811–1879) was known in his lifetime as “the Missouri Artist.” Raised on the banks of the Missouri River, he showed an early interest in drawing and took art lessons at a girls’ school that his mother operated. At 16, Bingham went to work for a cabinetmaker, became a preacher and lawyer, and soon began as well to win fame as a portraitist.
"Shooting for the Beef," 1850, by George Caleb Bingham. Oil on canvas; 33 3/8 inches by 49 inches. Brooklyn Museum, New York. (Public Domain)
"Shooting for the Beef," 1850, by George Caleb Bingham. Oil on canvas; 33 3/8 inches by 49 inches. Brooklyn Museum, New York. (Public Domain)
Today, however, Bingham’s fame rests on his genre paintings—scenes from everyday life, many of them mirroring the rural life so familiar to him since his boyhood. In his piece “Shooting for the Beef,” for instance, he paints a collection of rough-hewn men with their firearms and dogs engaged in a marksmanship contest, with the prize being the steer in the left of the canvas and the target a nail in a board. Some American communities still boast similar contests, called turkey shoots (I last watched one in the mid-1990s), which provide the happy comradeship found in Bingham’s painting.
"The Verdict of the People," 1854–1855, by George Caleb Bingham. Oil on canvas; 46 inches by 55 inches. Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri. (Public Domain)
"The Verdict of the People," 1854–1855, by George Caleb Bingham. Oil on canvas; 46 inches by 55 inches. Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri. (Public Domain)
Bingham was active in politics in his day, holding several offices. And he painted life-sized portraits of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and others—works that were displayed in the Missouri statehouse beginning in 1859 until fire destroyed the building and the paintings in 1911. But it is Bingham’s work “The Verdict of the People” that gives us real insight into the politics of his era.
"Stump Speaking,"1853–1854, by George Caleb Bingham. Oil on canvas; 42 1/2 inches by 58 inches. Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri. (Public Domain)
"Stump Speaking,"1853–1854, by George Caleb Bingham. Oil on canvas; 42 1/2 inches by 58 inches. Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri. (Public Domain)
In this painting, we see a raucous crowd of men and boys assembled on an election day. Some of them are grinning or whooping it up over a victory, a drunk crawls along the ground, and one tall man is shown wearing three hats with one atop the other, perhaps prizes won in a bet. Above this chaotic scene in the middle of the canvas, there flies an American flag, while on a balcony on the right, a group of women wave a banner and advocate for the temperance movement. Missouri was then a battleground between pro-slavery and abolitionist forces, and it is likely that the voting has to do with that issue. “Stump Speaking” and “The County Election” are the two other works in the artist’s political series.

The American Rembrandt

"Self-Portrait," 1863, by Eastman Johnson. Oil on millboard; 15 1/2 inches by 12 inches. The Art Institute of Chicago. (Public Domain)
"Self-Portrait," 1863, by Eastman Johnson. Oil on millboard; 15 1/2 inches by 12 inches. The Art Institute of Chicago. (Public Domain)
Jonathan Eastman Johnson (1824–1906) earned the title “American Rembrandt” while studying the Flemish masters during a long period of study and work in Europe.

Like George Bingham and so many other young men of his time, Johnson entered the working world while in his mid-teens. After serving a stint in a lithography shop, at 18 he opened a crayon-portrait studio in Augusta, Maine. Over the next decade, Johnson moved back and forth between Boston and Washington, painting portraits in oils. In 1849, he traveled to Germany, where he studied with Emanuel Leutze, who gave the world the painting “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” After spending six years in Europe traveling and painting, Bingham returned to the United States, where his work rapidly gained admirers, first for his depictions of Indian life in the Upper Midwest and then for his paintings of slavery, and a few years later, of the Civil War.

"Negro Life at the South (Old Kentucky Home)," 1859, by Eastman Johnson. Oil on linen; 36 inches by 45 1/4 inches. New-York Historical Society. (Public Domain)
"Negro Life at the South (Old Kentucky Home)," 1859, by Eastman Johnson. Oil on linen; 36 inches by 45 1/4 inches. New-York Historical Society. (Public Domain)
One of Johnson’s best-known and most influential works is his 1859 “Negro Life at the South (Old Kentucky Home).” Here, we see African Americans at leisure—some dancing, a man playing a banjo, a couple engaged in intimate conversation. What was strange about this painting is that both Southern slaveholders and Northern abolitionists hailed its accuracy and beauty. The Southerners believed that it demonstrated that a life of bondage was not all drudgery and horrible treatment, while their Northern cousins held that the poverty rampant on this canvas reinforced the evils of bondage.
"The Old Stagecoach," 1871, by Eastman Johnson. Oil on canvas; 36 1/4 inches by 60 1/8 inches. Milwaukee Art Museum, Wisconsin. (Public Domain)
"The Old Stagecoach," 1871, by Eastman Johnson. Oil on canvas; 36 1/4 inches by 60 1/8 inches. Milwaukee Art Museum, Wisconsin. (Public Domain)
In “The Old Stagecoach,” we see another scene of joy, this time with children playing on a broken-down coach. Here again, a painting gives us a slice of life in the 19th century. The children, all barefoot, swarm around the coach, with some pretending to be horses, others passengers. One girl holds a parasol, copying her elders, while one boy stands atop the abandoned vehicle exuberantly waving his cap. Another boy beckons for a girl, who is tugging at her mother’s dress, to join them.
Besides offering viewers bits of the culture of the day, both these paintings remind us that not so long ago, men, women, and children made their own entertainment.

A Vision of Nobility

A portrait of Winslow Homer, 1865, by Oliver Ingraham Lay. Oil on canvas; 20 1/8 inches by 16 1/8 inches. National Academy of Design, New York. (Public Domain)
A portrait of Winslow Homer, 1865, by Oliver Ingraham Lay. Oil on canvas; 20 1/8 inches by 16 1/8 inches. National Academy of Design, New York. (Public Domain)
Boston-born Winslow Homer (1836–1910) grew up in nearby Cambridge and first worked as a commercial printmaker. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Harper’s Weekly hired the young man and sent him off with the Union army to serve as an artist-correspondent, tasked with sending back to New York illustrations of camp life and battle. Homer’s vivid illustrations and his paintings like “Home Sweet Home” struck an enormous chord with the public.
"Home, Sweet Home," circa 1863, by Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas; 21 1/2 inches by 16 1/2 inches. National Gallery of Art, Washington. (Public Domain)
"Home, Sweet Home," circa 1863, by Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas; 21 1/2 inches by 16 1/2 inches. National Gallery of Art, Washington. (Public Domain)
Perhaps the most moving and profound of these works was his piece “The Veteran in a New Field,” painted after the war’s end. Knowing that the man holding the scythe in this field of wheat is an ex-soldier because of the painting’s title brings a whole new perspective to what would otherwise be a simple rural scene. Here, the uniform is replaced by the ordinary clothing of a farmer and the bayonet by a scythe, echoing the biblical “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares.” With his back to us, a posture that hides his face, this veteran represents all those who have seen war and death. He is both a thresher of grain and a thresher of the postwar American future.
“The Veteran in a New Field,” 1865, Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas; 24 1/8 inches by 38 1/8 inches. Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot, 1967. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Public Domain)
“The Veteran in a New Field,” 1865, Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas; 24 1/8 inches by 38 1/8 inches. Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot, 1967. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Public Domain)
In “Snap the Whip,” his popular 1872 painting of boys playing a game during school recess, Homer offers a livelier and more colorful take on 19th-century life. One of the red schoolhouses that by then dotted the American landscape stands behind the nine boys. They are dressed in the rural fashion of the day: trousers torn and ragged from games and chores, suspenders, and hats or caps. In the distance rises a steeple from a small, white church—another building common across the land at the time.
"Snap the Whip," 1872, by Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas; 12 inches by 20 inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Public Domain)
"Snap the Whip," 1872, by Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas; 12 inches by 20 inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Public Domain)
In 1883, following an extended trip to Europe, Homer settled permanently in Prouts Neck on the coast of Maine, where, as art history professor emerita Barbara Weinberg writes: “He enjoyed isolation and was inspired by privacy and silence to paint the great themes of his career: the struggle of people against the sea and the relationship of fragile, transient human life to the timelessness of nature.” These paintings of wind, water, and weather remain popular today.
In “Was Winslow Homer the Greatest American Painter of the 19th Century?” from Artsy, an online art magazine, Jon Mann explains that Homer may lay claim to this distinction “above all because he largely remained in America, and because in his work he represented a certain individualistic spirit, one that celebrated a noble vision of hard work and self-sufficiency as the nation rebuilt itself.”

We see these same elements at play in the works of Bingham and Johnson. Their paintings embody what was, and what should always be, the American spirit.

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Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va.
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