This painting by George Caleb Bingham is important to the Modern Period, 1750-1900 CE, because it refers to trade, settlement, the (new) nation’s north-south axis—the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers—and the issue of race in America. It is important that people recognize that this painting represents the Modern Period in America because the issues this painting deals with were all large factors in the life of an American at this time. This painting is relevant today because it shows how native and foreign American inhabitants along the upper reaches of the Missouri drifted toward the embrace of the modern, urbanized world, making it a great reference to the start of the Modern Period.
Overview- This painting is a beautiful scene of fur traders traveling down the Missouri River, and it can be read from left to right—against the flow of the Missouri—from the native bear cub chained to the boat’s prow, to the man at the stern, a straight line from the beast to civilized humanity. This image symbolizes the path to the Modern Period.
Parts- The most noticeable part in this piece is the boat with the fur traders on it, and I’ve separated it into three parts, the bear, the boy, and the man. The native bear cub will probably be sold for it’s fur, and we later see that the boy rests on the fur pelts; fur trade being a large part of the economy. The man at the stern of the boat stares at the viewer with a somewhat sad expression, whereas the young man appears content. We can also see the young man holds a rifle and there is a dead duck laying beside him, suggesting he has recently shot the duck with said rifle, and is smiling perhaps because he is content with his shot. The river they float in is the Missouri. There is a rock jutting out from the water as well as some branches, adding a more naturesque feel to the river. There appears to be an island or land with trees behind the subjects, all of which is blanketed by a cloudy, yet not gloomy, sky.
Title- The title of this piece is Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, which explains that this piece focuses on a large part of America’s economy. George Bingham himself called the picture “French-Trader—Half Breed Son,” emphasizing the painting’s racial exoticism. However, the managers of the American Art-Union in New York, where he sent it for exhibition, chose to show it under its present title, which transformed the trader and his son into generalized western types. Both titles, previous and current, prepare the viewer to expect fur traders on the surface, but a great history lying hidden in the depths of the Missouri river they travel on.
Interpretation- This entire image shows much more than a trader and his son, it shows a history of revolutions and the mixing of races, etc. The bear cub is a symbol for humanity’s wilder past, and as explained in the overview, the maturity progresses on the boat as we look from left to right. The native cub also symbolizes the movement of natives into new unknown places; this black bear cub will probably be sold for its fur, which could also symbolize the slavery still occurring in the beginning of Modern America. The boy is a symbol of the newly independent United States of America, as he is called “mixed-race” by Bingham, the adolescent exemplifies the mixing of races, although what really happened is most natives were moved to reservations. The man is a symbol of the older generations during this time period, his solemn expression perhaps represents the revolutions and wars he has witnessed occur. The message of this piece of art is that The United States have entered a period of modernization where the best is yet to come.
Context- This painting takes place along the Missouri River in North America, shortly after The United State’s fight for and declaration of independence from the British. The States have a history with the fur trade, dating back to their colonial times when they were still ruled by the British royalty. The French also participated in the fur trade, as many beavers were in Canada where they hunted for fur, which explains why Bingham described the traders to have French origins. It is quite possible after the Seven Years War that occurred during this time period these fur traders’ family became citizens of the American Colonies, and later during the American Revolution, citizens of the United States. This time period involves revolutions all around the world, the most successful being the French Revolution. The Haitians also experienced a revolution in which the slaves expelled all the Blancs— both grand and petite— as they called them, from the island, but it eventually caused their economic and political systems to weaken. All of these revolutions were leading to a more modernized world, and they were caused by the Enlightenment, which was when everyone started thinking differently yet again.
Conclusion- This painting depicts two humble fur traders expanding their ancient world into a modern one. It shows that the artists of this time were recognizing the great changes the revolutions had led to, and that Bingham in particular believed these changes were leading to a more sophisticated, mature world. This is important to what we are studying because it highlights a major part of the economy at this time period and hints at the revolutions occurring during this time period.