Freedom and transfiguration on the frontier

The Jolly Flatboatmen,” by George Caleb Bingham. Image/Wikimedia Commons

By Dennis Raverty

The Living Church

When George Caleb Bingham’s painting, The Jolly Flatboatmen, was chosen to be engraved and distributed to subscribers in 1846, some members of the American Art-Union objected to the uncouth subject matter, which they felt was not worthy of the high cultural aspirations of the organization. Although one reviewer admitted that the work was interesting in its documentary realism, by choosing “everyday and unpoetical subjects,” such as these low-paid, late adolescent boat hands, he wrote, the organization had fallen short of its lofty “high art” goals, that is “to elevate and purify public taste.”

Yet it was arguably among the foremost aims of the artist to show exactly the opposite: how the ordinary contained a latent, mystical poeticism that transfigured an otherwise banal subject and placed it on or near the level of the classical work of the past at the very pinnacle of the Renaissance, as represented by the art of Raphael.

The painting depicts a flatboat laden with merchandise heading downstream on a hazy afternoon while the riverboat workers enjoy a moment of recreation. The figures all seem natural and relaxed, yet if examined carefully, the posture of the young man ecstatically dancing on top of the crate in the center of the composition is almost identical to the posture of Christ in Raphael’s masterpiece, The Transfiguration.

“The Transfiguration” by Raphael

The main figures in both compositions are contained within a nearly equilateral triangle. Christ’s hands are in the orans posture of a priest celebrating Mass while the jolly boatman similarly gestures. His companions are not adoring prophets and disciples but a fiddler whose face is hidden behind his straw hat and a pudgy, smiling boy marking the beat of the music with a tin pan while the others watch. The long-legged youth sitting on the right looking directly at the viewer is derived from a river god in another Raphael composition (the same figure would later be quoted by Manet in his Luncheon on the Grass).

The older boat pilot and his companion with a broad brimmed hat just visible between the dancer and the fiddler, steering the boat, have their counterparts in the figures at the left of the Transfiguration, who are just visible climbing the hill, and may represent the artist and the patron (and perhaps in the Bingham as well). The ship pilot’s red hat provocatively resembles the Phrygian cap, notorious symbol of the revolutions in France and throughout Europe, and Bingham was both fiercely democratic, and a political activist.

Bingham’s family had moved to Missouri when he was a boy and so the artist was familiar with life along the river, often depicting it in his genre scenes. The references to the Transfiguration are not merely formal or compositional however but imply that life on the Western frontier transforms a person and helps them realize their innate Christlike potential. The boatmen demonstrate their human nature in this everyday scene just as Jesus revealed his divine nature on Mount Tabor. The gift of discernment demanded by the painting is the ability to see the latent Christ even in the most humble and coarse of subjects. Recognizing the High Renaissance references in this lowly genre piece of daily life on the river required a similar act of recognition.

This transfiguring, “incarnational” process, it is implied, is made possible by the boatmen’s close communion with nature and in their shared repudiation of an overly refined society back east. Values such as democracy, freedom, equality and independence are all fulfilled in this idealized representation of the carefree life of these young men, their journey of life unrestricted by the fetters of conventional domesticity in a new, unspoiled Garden of Eden out west. Passionately involved with local politics, Bingham often celebrated frontier democracy in his work. The Jolly Flatboatmen is a populist, lowbrow realization of a highbrow Renaissance masterpiece whose artistic standing is above reproach, even by the snobs among the collectors who were subscribers to the engravings.

The painting was commissioned by the American Art-Union, an organization that reproduced the work as a large black and white engraving and sold the reproductions to paying subscribers. By purchasing one of these prints, the collector’s name was put into a lottery, and the prize to be awarded to the winner by the Union was the original painting. The Jolly Flatboatmen was originally awarded to a grocer in upstate New York.

To fully appreciate the painting within its historical context, however, it must be understood that the frontier West was not merely a geographical region in the nineteenth century imagination, it was at least as much a myth: a cluster of ideas, hopes, fears and fantasies about the far West, conceived of as an ever-expanding frontier of almost boundless proportions, a sublime and romantic horizon waiting to be explored, cultivated and populated.

This construct is sometimes referred to as “Manifest Destiny.” Bingham’s work, as has been pointed out by several authors, embodies and exemplifies this myth almost uncritically. The concept of the frontier was gendered during the nineteenth century as a robust, masculine domain, while civilization, domesticity, family life and conventional Protestant religiosity were all gendered as feminine and relegated to the margins.

Although from our vantage point the negative impact this myth has caused is obvious: the displacement and sometimes the extermination of the original inhabitants of the West with all the racist assumptions that go along with it; the damage caused by our reckless disregard for the consequences of our actions on the natural environment; and our sense of entitlement to the riches of creation in the name of commerce yet without the responsibility to conserve it and be its stewards.

 But we shouldn’t let these contemporary biases cloud our appreciation for Bingham’s achievement in this painting. Essentially a realist, he aspires to place mere genre painting (that is, paintings of everyday life), on the same level as the very highest category of painting in the nineteenth century, what was called “History Painting,” which generally had as its subjects biblical, mythological or historical narratives, often on a grand scale. By elevating the ordinary as Bingham has done in this painting, the artist transfigures it and at the same time challenges the viewer to similarly discern the hidden image of the glorified Christ in their otherwise mundane, everyday reality.

Dennis Raverty is an associate professor of art history at New Jersey City University, specializing in art of the 19th and 20th centuries.

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