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The Authenticity of American Realism: Samuel Clemens and George Caleb Bingham “On the River”

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 July 2009

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In 1846 in Louisville, Kentucky, John Banvard, a self-taught Missouri painter, exhibited his Three-Mile Painting, a panorama of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, painted from hundreds of direct observations and sketches he had executed over a period of many years along the riverbanks. The painting was exhibited by means of a giant pair of rollers upon which the canvas was wound and unwound. Following a successful run in Louisville, the exhibition drew large crowds in Boston and New York City before Banvard capped his triumph with a European tour. In a promotional description of the painting, printed in Boston in 1847 to generate interest in the exhibit, many endorsements testified to the painting's authenticity, including one signed by over one hundred captains and other officers of steamboats who had examined the painting and declared it “correct.” That authenticity and “correctness” were measures of artistic achievement testifies to the premium placed on verisimilitude in art that served as a record of discovery and observation along the American frontier.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1996

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1. This testimonial is immediately followed by another, from the Mayor of Louisville, Fred A. Kaye, who, claiming personal acquaintance with “nearly all of the gentlemen who have certified to the correctness of the great Panorama of the Mississippi river,” vouches for their character and “veracity”! (Description of Banvard's Panorama of the Mississippi River…. [Boston: J. Putnam, 1847], 48)Google Scholar. See also McDermott, John Francis, The Lost Panoramas of the Mississippi (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958).Google Scholar

2. Bingham, George Caleb, “An Address to the Public”Google Scholar; quoted in Bloch, E. Maurice, George Caleb Bingham: The Evolution of an Artist (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 222.Google Scholar

3. See, for example, Demos, John, “George Caleb Bingham: The Artist as Social Historian,” American Quarterly 17 (1965): 218–28CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Westervelt, Roger F., “Whig Painter of Missouri,” American Art Journal 2 (Spring 1970): 4653CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Rush, Nancy, “George Caleb Bingham's ‘Lighter Relieving a Steamboat Aground,’Smithsonian Studies in American Art 2 (Spring 1988): 1731.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

4. Twain, Mark to Howells, William Dean, 10, 24, 1874Google Scholar, in Mark Twain – Howells Letters: The Correspondence of Samuel L. Clemens and William Dean Howells, 1872–1910, ed. Smith, Henry Nash and Gibson, William M. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), 1: 34.Google Scholar

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6. Goodman, Nelson, Ways of Worldmaking (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1978), 94Google Scholar; Bryson, Norman, Vision and Painting: The Logic of the Gaze (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), 5Google Scholar; and Snyder, Joel, “Picturing Vision,” in The Language of Images, ed. Mitchell, W. J. T. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 223.Google Scholar

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19. Bloch, , Drawings, 12Google Scholar. For example, Bingham's Jolly Flatboatmen in Port, painted in 1857 in Düsseldorf, where the artist was studying, “is almost entirely composed of figures derived from studies previously made for earlier paintings” (ibid).

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25. Bingham even executed later versions of his best received canvases, including one of Raftsmen Playing Cards (entitled In a Quandry) and Fur Traders Descending … (entitled Fur Trappers Return). The repetitions actually serve to enhance the authenticity of the originals.

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31. A case in point is the feud between the Darnells and the Watsons, which Clemens learned about from Horace Bixby during his trip down the Mississippi in 1882. The feud is described in Life on the Mississippi by a “country gentleman,” and retold by Huck in Huckleberry Finn as the story of the Shepherdsons and the Grangerfords. The more fictionalized it becomes, the more convincing it gets. Huck, as a reluctant participant, offers the author greater latitude for representing the emotional drama of the feud. The represented subject is more real to us than the “real thing” because the real thing cannot represent itself; the feuding families are convincing victims of their own folly only in Twain's final representation of them. Along the same lines, Henry James's narrator of “The Real Thing” confesses to a preference (which is clearly James's as well) for “the represented subject over the real one; the defect of the real one was so apt to be a lack of representation” (James, Henry, “The Real Thing,” in The Portable Henry James, ed. Zabel, Morton Dauwen [New York: Viking, 1951], 110–11).Google Scholar

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42. James, Henry, The Critical Muse: Selected Literary Criticism (London: Viking Penguin, 1987), 371.Google Scholar