Exploring the collections of the Mercantile Library:

Observing Washington’s Birthday: the Missouri Artist Paints the Father of our Country
Among the Mercantile Library’s most treasured objects is George Caleb Bingham’s portrait of George Washington painted in 1856 and donated to the Library by the artist in 1859. It serves as an example of the Missouri artist’s flourishing career, his relationship with the Mercantile Library, and his connection to the broader world of American art in the 19th century.
George Caleb Bingham, Portrait of George Washington, after Gilbert Stuart, 1856, oil on canvas; gift of the artist. Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library at UMSL
George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879) was born in Virginia but moved with his family to Missouri when he was eight years old. In 1822 noted portrait artist Chester Harding (1792-1866) had a studio in Franklin, Missouri, where Bingham’s family lived, and reportedly the young Bingham watched Harding painting a portrait of Daniel Boone, which sparked his interest in art.  A few years later Bingham’s father died, and although he was apprenticed to a cabinetmaker, the teenage Bingham was earning $20 apiece for portraits. Bingham developed his career with trips to Philadelphia where he studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, and to St. Louis, Natchez, and Washington DC, establishing himself as a noted portrait painter in each location.

In the 1850s Bingham received a portrait commission for the Missouri State Capital. In preparation he painted this copy of a renowned portrait of Washington done in 1796 by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828).
Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), George Washington (The Athenaeum Portrait), 1796, oil on canvas. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; owned jointly with Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 
Gilbert Stuart was the nation’s preeminent portrait painter in 1796. He was born in Rhode Island and had art training there, in Scotland, and in London where he exhibited at the Royal Academy. In 1793 he returned to the United States and continued building his reputation and career with compelling portraits that captured the physical likeness of the sitter as well as their character and personality. Stuart had already done another portrait of Washington from life when Martha Washington commissioned him to create paired portraits of her and her husband. Stuart never finished the portraits and kept them in his studio, using the George Washington portrait as inspiration to create the numerous portrait copies requested by admirers of the former president, especially after Washington’s death. Stuart’s unfinished portrait became known as the Athenaeum Portrait because it went to the Boston Athenaeum after the artist’s death.
George Caleb Bingham, The Jolly Flatboatmen, 1847, engraving.
Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library at UMSL
In 1856, Bingham was at the height of his career. In the 1840s and 1850s he was creating the iconic images of American life for which he became famous.  From 1856 – 1859 Bingham and his family were in Europe, spending most of their time in Düsseldorf where the artist was welcomed into the studio of Emmanuel Leutze (1816-1868), the highly respected history painter. Although German-born, Leutze was raised in the Philadelphia area and became a prominent artist in America, spending several years in Düsseldorf before returning to the United States where he worked in New York and Washington DC. In 1851, just a few years before Bingham’s arrival at his studio, Leutze had completed his now-famous monumental painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware.
Emmanuel Leutze (1816-1868), Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851, oil on canvas. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Gift of John Stewart Kennedy, 1897
It was during his time among the leading American artists in Europe that Bingham worked on his commission for the Washington portrait. The practice of copying a well-known artist’s work was a respected and often-used learning tool in the artistic academic tradition. Art students were sent to museums and galleries to copy the Old Masters in order to understand the use of line, color, brushstroke, and composition that gave those works their stature as masterpieces. As the students progressed, they were expected to take inspiration from these masterpieces, but make the work their own, showing that they were more than merely copyists. As an experienced portrait painter, Bingham turned to Stuart’s portrait, painted from life, as an accurate source for his own work, yet he also went beyond that inspiration to create an original work of art.

For Bingham – as for any American artist of the period – there could be no better source for his commissioned portrait of George Washington than Stuart’s famous Athenaeum portrait. In his copy, Bingham retains the original’s unfinished aspect, but he tidies up the background into a neat oval surrounding the head. He has accurately reproduced Stuart’s fluid brushstroke and delicate depiction of Washington’s hair and the lace of his cravat, but the ruddy coloring of the cheeks is typical of Bingham’s portrait style.

In this one work, created by a largely self-taught Missouri artist traveling amid the art centers of Europe, working alongside a major American artist and working from an iconic life portrait, Bingham encapsulates the essence of American art in the mid-19th century. Fortunately for the Library, he copied both of the portraits Martha Washington commissioned from Stuart, and both of these treasures continue to grace the Mercantile Library’s walls.
George Caleb Bingham, Portrait of Martha Washington, and Portrait of George Washington, after Gilbert Stuart, 1856, oil on canvas; gift of the artist. Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library at UMSL
Share Share
Forward Forward
Facebook Facebook
Website Website
Email Email
Instagram Instagram
Copyright © 2021 St. Louis Mercantile Library at UMSL, All rights reserved.

1 University Blvd | St. Louis MO | 63121
314-516-7240 | www.umsl.edu/mercantile

The St. Louis Mercantile Library at UMSL is open under University
COVID-19 restrictions. Please review our visitor guidelines

Open days and hours vary by semester.
Please review building and Reading Room hours here.

Current University Covid-19 information can be found here.
Thank you for continuing to support the Library through your membership and donations.