artwork “Raftsmen Playing Cards” by George Caleb Bingham. Specifically, it will discuss the historical context and aesthetic effect of the piece, and answer the question, what makes this work cool? The work is an amusing and very American painting created in 1847. It is oil on canvas, 3’11” by 5’91/2,” and it resides at the Saint Louis Art Museum in Missouri. This oil is wonderful in its vivid color and detail, but there is something more compelling about it, and that is that the work is so obviously and uniquely American. These rough-hewn men playing cards could not exist anywhere but on an American river, and that is quite clear from the moment anyone first views this work. The painting is comprised of a large, flat raft of the type polled along the Mississippi River in the mid-nineteenth century. It is the glue in the painting that holds the characters together, and the characters in this painting are the main focus. Dressed in bright colors, the men playing cards, and those watching, are the central point of this painting. The men, in various forms of work and rest, converge around two of their friends who are playing cards. Each man on the raft has a distinct and quite discernable personality, it is clear the painter was hoping to create more than a painting here, he was attempting to incorporate real and vivid caricatures of American characters on his raft floating down a heavily wooded river. Only one man works, and he has his back to the camera as he steadily poles the raft up the river. The others all surround the two men playing cards, watching their action, and perhaps scheming how to swindle the winner out of his newfound winnings. Each subject is distinct, with unique features, clothing, and attitude, which make each man a real character in his own right. Lighting helps keep the main subject in focus, while the riverbank and river off in the distance seem a bit hazy and foggy. It is clear the painter wanted the focus to center on the action on the raft, and the background is simply there for setting and mood. Dressed in rough shirts and pants, and some without shoes, these men are clearly coarse characters who enjoy each other’s company, but perhaps, as the two men glancing over the shoulders of the players indicate, are not quite to be trusted. There is something a bit scheming about them, even in this benign setting.
This art is clearly American Realism at its best. The minute detail of the figures and the raft, the attention to the riverbank and the misty mountains in the distance, Bingham executes all these details with deftness and a real concern for realism. He has even spent the time to recreate distinct personalities for his river men, which are quite apparent with a close viewing of the painting. There is a dreamlike quality to the surroundings, but the main subjects stand out in stark relief. It is clear they are the main focus of this painting, but they also reveal Bingham’s realistic style that followed him throughout his lifetime. At a time when there were no commonly available photographs, Bingham captured scenes as if they were shot with a camera, so that people all over the world could see what life was like on the American frontier. His style is consistent with other realists of the time, who strove to capture scenes as they really were, and depict people as they really looked. This was a time when Americans wanted to see realism in their artworks, and yet, they wanted them to depict happy and simple scenes of American life. As the textbook notes, “The demand was for pictures that preserved the myth of simple, happy, rustic life, rendered with close attention to circumstantial detail and without any hint of social tension” (Honour & Fleming 689). Bingham’s works fit this bill perfectly, and he is one of the finest examples of a self-taught painter who mastered the art of realism that America has produced. His work is also an excellent example of what American Realist painters were doing at this time. Painters like Daniel Huntington, Robert W. Weir, and John G. Chapman also painted in this genre during Bingham’s time, and their commonality is their love for the West, and their ability to capture the excitement and character of the West for their art patrons back East, who wanted realistic paintings depicting their romanticized idea of the American frontier. Other paintings of this era captured real-life heroes like Daniel Boone, and political figures of the day – in keeping with the realistic and often romantic view of the American frontier.
There are many, many items in this painting that all come together to make it quite cool. First and foremost, it is distinctly American, something that could not be said even one hundred years before, when European art still dominated the style and character of most artwork. Bingham’s work not only captures the realism of the American frontier, it captures the soul of Americans. Nowhere else could this painting could have taken place. The men, the landscape, and the raft itself all shout “American,” and that is one of the things that makes this piece so cool, it is ours, and ours alone. Bingham and painters like him created a new and distinctive style that became noted around the world, and this painting, with all its’ realistic touches, shows just why. Most important are the men themselves, who have such unique personalities. The man on the right, who has just thrown down his card, looks like someone you would not want to cross, and neither does his partner. However, the man in the red shirt looks a little perplexed or even simple, and the viewer has to worry that the other player will rout him, leaving him with little but his bright red shirt and blue pants. The two men watching the action seem to be waiting for their turn, but the man in the dark hat looks especially eager to see what the man on the right is playing. He does not seem like he is altogether to be trusted, either. The man in the rear seems less interested than bored, and his clothing seems to indicate he may be the owner or boss on the boat. There is another man unconcerned with the play, who seems to have an injury of some kind, but the others ignore him, so it must not be major. All of this detail comes from Bingham’s ability to paint a scene with realism and detail, and that is pretty cool.
It is clear Bingham can handle landscape work, and one important aspect of this work is the landscape surrounding the men as they travel along the river. However, Bingham could have removed the landscape, and it would still be a striking piece of art. Remove the raft and the men, however, and the painting would lose its punch, and its coolness. The men and their reactions to each other are what give this painting its life, and without them, it could be a landscape anywhere, at any time. The men are what make this painting American, and they are central to the core of the Realism movement. A landscape can certainly be real and emotional, but add these very important men, and the painting takes on a new depth, and a new feeling. It is quite clear that Bingham understood his subjects implicitly, and that he understood exactly what he trying to impart on the canvas. This is another item in the list of things that make this painting cool. Bingham knew what he was doing, that is clear, but like a great writer or poet,…