In 1846, 'The Jolly Flatboatmen' Did A Different Sort Of River Dance
Eight Midwestern river men — all jolly fellows — traveled from St. Louis to New York recently on a museum-to-museum voyage. George Caleb Bingham's 1846 painting The Jolly Flatboatmen is the star of a show opening at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Wednesday, but Bingham's painting belongs to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where it's hung, on and off, for more than 50 years.
The National Gallery bought the painting in May. And while the gallery's director, Rusty Powell, won't say how much they paid ("We never discuss those matters," he declares) the last time it was sold — to a Detroit collector in 1986 — it went for $6 million. Almost 30 years later ... well, you can do the math.
"It's the most important genre painting in American history," Powell says. The Jolly Flatboatmen depicts an everyday scene in 19th-century life: eight men floating downstream from trading posts along a great Midwestern river (the Mississippi or the Missouri, the artist doesn't say), where some merchant sent them on a shopping spree.
"This is a scene of them coming back down the river," says curator Franklin Kelly. "So in fact you see the flatboat is very low in the water." It's loaded with furs, a coonskin and rolls of blankets. Kelly says they're heading back to port, their hard work mostly over. One of the river men steers and the rest are loafing and making music.
"One man's got a fiddle," Kelly says, "the other, younger man is banging on a pan." Another is lying on his back doing what at Gold's Gym they call a crunch. He's watching a guy in a pink shirt and blue pants, his arms raised, his hair blowing.
"[He's] dancing up a storm," Kelly says. " ... It's a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky. There's a little bit of mist in the distance hanging over the river. But it's a nice time."
This 1846 painting made George Caleb Bingham's career. Known around Missouri primarily as a portrait painter, he went national with The Jolly Flatboatmen with help from an East Coast arts group. Judith Brodie, curator of prints and drawings at the National Gallery, says, "If it weren't for the American Art Union, this painting may never have been painted."
It's very democratic. These are working people; they're wearing their ordinary clothes — tattered — but they're having a good time. It's that notion of a democratic art in a democratic society.
Several New York businessmen formed that union to promote paintings of American scenes by American artists. Every year, the union bought a painting — in Bingham's case, for $290. Then they held a lottery to decide who took the painting home.
The Jolly Flatboatmen ended up in the hands of New York grocer Benjamin van Schaick. It only cost him $5, the money he had paid to join the union. Other members just got prints of the painting, but those prints became wildly popular — some 18,000 were circulated. And a great American icon was born. Curator Franklin Kelly explains what makes it iconic:
"It's part of that American experience, that 'Go West, young man.' But it's also about work and play. It's very democratic. These are working people; they're wearing their ordinary clothes — tattered — but they're having a good time. It's that notion of a democratic art in a democratic society."
The Jolly Flatboatmen is part of the Met exhibition "Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River."
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.