Friday, December 14, 2012

James S. Rollins and George Caleb Bingham: A Mizzou Friendship

The Unions have just hung a new exhibition on a wall adjacent to the US Bank on the lower level of the Missouri Student Center. The exhibition highlights the friendship between Major James S. Rollins and the artist George Caleb Bingham, both of whom played major roles in shaping the University of Missouri during its formative years. The exhibition will be up for several months, ending date to be announced.

“What a significant thing their friendship was—one the father of learning in this state the other pre-eminently the greatest of Missouri artists—the very father of art in Missouri.”Missouri Alumnus, September 1933

Upon the commission of a portrait in the spring of 1834, James Sidney Rollins (then an aspiring lawyer) met and befriended George Caleb Bingham (a young Missouri painter), and thereafter the lives of these influential Missourians were deeply interwoven until the artist’s death in 1879. 

The Savitar of 1914 praises James S. Rollins: “Lawyer, legislator, leader of men… patron of public education…with courage unflinching, he fought for progressive principles in a conservative era…Distinguished in war, his greater achievements in peace merits the gratitude with which this volume is Dedicated” (Savitar, 1914).
Politically, both Rollins and Bingham were active participants in the Missouri Whig Party. Among other efforts, the Whig Party advocated for government sponsored public education; accordingly, as a representative in the Missouri Senate, Rollins played a foundational role in the formation of the University of Missouri. Indeed, not only did Rollins pen the Geyer Act of 1839 (the bill that established MU), but the respected statesman also sold his own land to Boone County at a generously reduced price in order to bolster the county’s bid to steward the University. To thank him for these contributions, the University of Missouri’s Board of Curators presented Rollins with this certificate of appreciation in 1872, declaring him to be the “Father of the University.” Rollins remained involved at MU in various capacities throughout his life. Most notably for our purposes, when The School of Fine Arts was established in 1877, he was able to use his influence therein to hire Bingham (then nearing the end of his life) as its first department head. 

University of Missouri Board of Curators, vellum certificate declaring Major James S. Rollins "Pater Universitatis Missourienis" (Father of the University), 1872, graciously donated by Laura Rollins Hockaday (great-granddaughter of James S. Rollins).
It is clear, however, that the long-time friendship between Rollins and Bingham extended well beyond political affinities and professional accommodations. The two were steadfast confidants, spending many hours together and candidly divulging their private ambitions on the pages of their frequently exchanged letters. The affection Rollins and Bingham shared was so sincere, in fact, that they each eventually named a son after the other. Paying tribute to the pair’s closeness, Rollins’ son, C. B. Rollins, reflected on their relationship after his father’s death: “Theirs was an example of the finest friendship. The natures of the two men were in complete harmony and they literally shared every thought without reservation” (Missouri Alumnus, November 1970).  

John Sartain (American), after George Caleb Bingham (American), The County Election, c. 1854, hand-tinted engraving, graciously donated by Thomas Swain Barclay, Alumnus (1915) and Professor of Political Science (1920-28).

“If employed upon my work, [Sartain] promises to devote himself to it exclusively, and expresses confidence in being able to produce a picture superior to any that has yet been published in the United States.”—Bingham in a letter to James S. Rollins discussing the potential employment of John Sartain, June 27, 1852.

After painting The County Election in his Missouri studio in 1851, Bingham traveled to Philadelphia in search of a skilled engraver to produce a high-quality reproduction of the image. Contrary to common artistic practice at this time, The County Election was not commissioned by a wealthy patron; rather, Bingham created this work independently, intending to mass-produce and market it to a wider public. To complete this task, Bingham sought the aid of John Sartain, an esteemed engraver and mezzotint artist. During his time in Philadelphia, Bingham established a close working relationship with Sartain wherein he vocalized his opinions about the fine points of picture-making and may have even assisted in hand-tinting the finished products. A savvy businessman, Bingham then toured the Midwest with the original painting, giving talks, and seeking subscribers to purchase Sartain’s facsimiles.

John Sartain (American), after George Caleb Bingham (American), The County Election (detail), c. 1854, hand-tinted engraving.
The County Election, detail showing the graphite signature of engraver John Sartain
The painting itself, which was coincidently owned by the Rollins family for many years, is partially biographical, inspired by Bingham’s own political aspirations and disappointments. In addition to working as a successful portraitist for the American elite, Bingham was politically active in Missouri Whiggery. While the artist had some success in local government, several unfortunate events—like losing his seat in the Missouri Senate in 1846 when an opponent contested the election—left Bingham resenting the American political machine. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that The County Election provides a sometimes unflattering vision of election day happenings. While, on the one hand, Bingham features an increasingly diverse voting body that now includes propertyless and recently immigrated white men, the image also suggests that elections were chaotic spectacles, at which one might see a politician handing out bribes or a barely-awake drunkard being dragged to the polls.
John Sartain (American), after George Caleb Bingham (American), The County Election (detail), c. 1854, hand-tinted engraving.

Gautier (French), after George Caleb Bingham (American), originally printed by Goupil & Co, Paris, later striking by Fishel, Adler & Scwartz, New York, Stump Speaking, c. 1856, hand-tinted engraving, graciously donated by Thomas Swain Barclay, Alumnus (1915) and Professor of Political Science (1920-28).

“Sartain is very much pleased with the drawing and grouping of the figures, and surrenders the opinion which he had previously entertained, that I would not be able to surpass the ‘County Election.’” Bingham in a letter to James S. Rollins about John Sartain’s reaction to Stump Speaking, November 7, 1853.

Following the path he took with The County Election, Bingham painted Stump Speaking with the intention of reproducing the image and marketing it to the public. While pleased with the extremely high quality of John Sartain’s engraving, Bingham was frustrated at the amount of time the independent printmaker had taken to reproduce The County Election. Therefore, instead of rehiring Sartain, the Missouri artist travelled to France at the behest of the Parisian printing press Goupil & Co.—with whom he had established a professional rapport—and employed them to publish Stump Speaking prints. It is likely that the publishing house was responsible for hiring the French artist Gautier (probably Louis-Adolphe Gautier), who is credited as the image’s engraver.

Gautier (French), after George Caleb Bingham (American), originally printed by Goupil & Co, Paris, later striking by Fishel, Adler & Scwartz, New York, Stump Speaking (detail), c. 1856, hand-tinted engraving,
Similar in theme to The County Election, Stump Speaking likewise reveals Bingham’s political leanings and experiences. Here, Bingham features a Democratic political candidate gesturing slouchingly toward a crowd whose members listen with varying levels of enthusiasm. Calling on the artist’s personal involvement in the Whig Party, art historians have argued that the Democratic orator’s posture is meant to communicate a lax and potentially untrustworthy attitude. It bears mentioning, then, that Bingham also includes a Whig politician—clad in an all-white suit and top hat—whose cool, unbending demeanor sits in stark contrast to the speaker’s limp stance. While sometimes critical of contemporary society, both The County Election and Stump Speaking coax the viewer’s eye deep into the horizon, giving a sense of hope for the nation’s future reach. 

James S. Rollins II and James S. Rollins III (shown at right) stand with Governor John M. Dalton and E.I. Dale Carthage (president of the State Historical Society) in front of George Caleb Bingham’s portrait of Major James S. Rollins, c. 1870 (Missouri Alumnus, February 1962).

***Click on images to see them larger!

Authored by Niki Eaton, PhD student, Art History and Archaeology


University of Missouri periodicals including Savitar and Missouri Alumnus.

The State Historical Society.

Casper, Scott. “Politics, Art, and the Contradictions of a Market Culture: George Caleb Bingham’s Stump Speaking. American Art, vol. 5, no. 3 (Summer, 1991) 26-47.

Husch, Gail E. “George Caleb Bingham’s The County Election: Whig Tribute to the Will of the People.” American Art Journal, vol. 19, no. 4 (Autumn, 1987) 4-22.

Miller, Angela. “The Mechanisms of the Market and the Invention of Western Regionalism: The Example of George Caleb Bingham.” Oxford Art Journal, vol. 15, no. 1 (1992) 3-20.