Object Image

The Jolly Flatboatmen

George Caleb Bingham was one of the most important American painters of genre subjects in the mid-19th century. His series of scenes of life and work on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers established his reputation in his own day and are today recognized as his finest creations. The Jolly Flatboatmen, along with Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845, Metropolitan Museum of Art), are the masterpieces of Bingham’s river pictures and icons of American art. In 1847, the American Art-Union, which had purchased The Jolly Flatboatmen directly from the artist, produced a large mezzotint of it that was distributed to its members (approximately 10,000) throughout the country, immediately making it one of the best-known works of art of its era. It depicts a group of men who, after accomplishing the hard work of rowing their flatboat upstream and loading it with cargo, are now relaxing and enjoying music and dancing. Bingham’s careful attention to detail is everywhere evident—a raccoon pelt hanging from a nail; a coil of rope; a turkey, which sticks its head out between the slats of the crate below the dancing man; a blue shirt hanging to dry. The composition is at once dynamic—the dancing man and the musicians—and elegantly stable in the way Bingham arranged the figures to form an isosceles triangle. The painting survives in superb condition, with its subtle brushwork, soft colors, and precise drawing intact.

The Jolly Flatboatmen joins two paintings by Bingham already in the Gallery’s collection—a fine early landscape, Cottage Scenery (1845) and Mississippi Boatman (1850). The Gallery’s 2014-2015 acquisition of works from the Corcoran collection significantly strengthened its representation of American genre painting. Superb works were added by Bingham’s contemporaries William Sidney Mount (The Tough Story–Scene in a Country Tavern, 1837), William Tylee Ranney (The Retrieve, 1850), and Richard Caton Woodville (Waiting for the Stage, 1851). The Jolly Flatboatmen now becomes the cornerstone of that group and one of the most significant paintings in the Gallery’s collection of 19th-century American paintings.

Credit: Patrons' Permanent Fund

Oil on canvas
96.8 x 123.2cm
Image and text © National Gallery of Art, 2020

Where you'll find this

National Gallery of Art
Permanent collection