Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 5, No. 1, Winter 1985, pp. 24-38.
The work of "the Missouri artist," George Caleb Bingham (1811-79), offers us a good opportunity for considering the broad subject of originality and influence in the arts. The combination of originality and convention in paintings such as Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, The Jolly Flatboatmen, and The County Election can tell us much about the dynamics of that branch of American art which sought to reconcile the inherited traditions of formal, academic European art with the often strikingly unconventional reality of a New World.
Often condescendingly labeled "regional" art because of its frequently eclectic emphasis upon the local and the "folksy," this sort of genre painting is in fact directly related to the Romantic picturesque, as defined not only by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art and literary critics and practitioners but also by aestheticians from Edmund Burke and William Gilpin to Goethe and Ruskin. It follows from the new emphasis upon the real and the particular that may be traced in the poetry of Wordsworth and Freneau and the paintings of Constable and Church.1
On the other hand, the position of the neoclassical advocates of the general and the consensus who united behind Sir Joshua Reynolds is anticipated by Dr. ] ohnson's Imlac, who declares that the poet must concern himself not with the individual but with the species ("he does not number the streaks of the tulip").2 Artists like Bingham, however, were endeavoring to paint not just streaked tulips but a whole garden of flowers entirely unknown in Europe. Furthermore, that element of the unfamiliar, the different, frequently gains from the emphasis afforded by its juxtaposition with the familiar, the conventional.
In many ways this study addresses the subject of tradition and the individual talent both on the personal level of the particular artist and on the broader national level of American art as it sought to distinguish itself from the European tradition that lay behind it. An artist like Bingham (or like frontier artists such as Remington and Russell) faced a dilemma in attempting to portray in formal works of art scenes, events, and experiences quite unlike anything familiar to either the producers or the consumers of conventional European art. The "language of art" had not yet developed the requisite "vocabulary" for the American experience, with the result that Bingham and others were forced both to adopt and to adapt the inherited vocabulary of the western European visual tradition for their own purposes. Ironically, this occurred even as in Europe the trend in visual and verbal art toward both romanticizing and sensationalizing the American frontier was gaining momentum.3 In any event, one discovers in the works of these American artists a visual device in many ways analogous to what literary critics call the simile. That is, an unfamiliar scene is frequently rendered in such a way that its significance is made apparent to the viewer through some degree of likeness to a picture (or pictures) with which the viewer is already familiar. This visual simile functions like its literary relative: not only is the similarity revealed, the difference-the uniqueness-is heightened in the process.
Literary critics have made much of the ambiguity inherent in influence studies.4 I do not mean to suggest that Bingham or others like him set out to repudiate the European tradition in some sort of artistic patricide. Bingham does not engage in deliberate misinterpretation of his predecessors as a revision is tic means of freeing himself from any crippling fear of possibly repeating their statements in his own art. Bingham did not need, as Harold Bloom suggests many poets did, to liberate himself from his predecessors, but rather to employ their works in a variety of ways that enabled him to make statements of his own. His statements, however, do in some cases gain significance from the implied act of comparison involved in any such manipulation of source materials.
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/stephen_behrendt/6/