In 1846, 'The Jolly Flatboatmen' Did A Different Sort Of River Dance

Jun 17, 2015
Originally published on June 17, 2015 6:19 am

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."

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."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Eight Midwestern river men recently traveled from St. Louis to New York. They're characters in a painting, George Caleb Bingham's "The Jolly Flatboatmen" from 1846. The painting is part of an exhibition called "Navigating The West," which is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York today. The painting will make it eventually to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, which recently bought it, and where NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamberg met the owners.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: "The Jolly Flatboatmen" has hung on and off for more than 50 years at the National Gallery. Not long ago, they bought it.

How much did you pay?

RUSTY POWELL: I can't really tell you that. We never discuss those matters.

STAMBERG: Well, I knew NGA Director Rusty Powell wouldn't tell, but the last time it was sold, to a Detroit collector in 1986, it went for $6 million. Almost 30 years later? You do the math.

Why was it so important for you to own it?

POWELL: Because it's the most important genre painting in American history.

STAMBERG: Bar none?

POWELL: Bar none.

STAMBERG: It's a marvelous picture, genre, an everyday scene in 19th-century life. Makes you smile. 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.

FRANKLIN KELLY: This is a scene of them coming back down the river. So in fact, you see the flatboat is very low in the water.

STAMBERG: It's loaded with furs, a coon skin, rolls of blankets. Curator Franklin Kelly says they're heading back to port, their hard work mostly over. One of the river men steers. The rest are loafing and making music.

KELLY: One man's got a fiddle. Another younger man's banging on a pan.

STAMBERG: 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, arms raised, hair blowing.

KELLY: Dancing up a storm.

STAMBERG: There's such exuberance here and joy.

KELLY: There is, there is. You can somehow just sense it. 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.

STAMBERG: This 1846 painting made George Caleb Bingham's career. Known about Missouri primarily for his portraits, he went national with "The Jolly Flatboatmen" with help from an East Coast arts group.

JUDITH BRODIE: If it weren't for the American Art Union, this painting may never have been painted.

STAMBERG: Judith Brodie, NGA curator of prints and drawings, says a group of New York businessmen formed the Art Union to promote paintings of American scenes by American artists. Every year, the Union bought a painting. In Bingham's case...

BRODIE: For $290.

STAMBERG: There was a lottery.

BRODIE: This particular painting ended up in the hands of a New York grocer.

STAMBERG: Benjamin van Schaick by name - lucky guy. It cost him five bucks, the money he paid to join the Art Union. Nice, for an original oil. Other members just got prints. Those Bingham prints became wildly popular. Some 18,000 were circulated, and a great American icon was born. Curator Franklin Kelly tells what makes it iconic.

KELLY: It's part of that American experience, that go West, young man. But it's also about work and play, and it's very democratic. These are working people. They're wearing ordinary clothes, tattered, but they're having a good time and they're - you know it's that notion of a democratic art in a democratic society.

STAMBERG: "The Jolly Flatboatmen" is part of the exhibit, "Navigating The West: George Caleb Bingham And The River." It starts today at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, a show that chronicles through art the opening of the American West. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.