Grade Level: 5–8
Students will explore how westward expansion increased the number of jobs available in the nineteenth-century, including being a flatboatman through a painting by George Caleb Bingham. Working in pairs, students will write a letter to their partner from the standpoint of a person moving westward. Then they will construct a poem in the guise of Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” about a modern-day job.
George Caleb Bingham
The Jolly Flatboatmen, 1846
oil on canvas, 38 1/8 x 48 1/2 in. (96.8 x 123.2 cm)
|4-C||Students analyze, describe, and demonstrate how factors of time and place (such as climate, resources, ideas, and technology) influence visual characteristics that give meaning and value to a work of art.|
|6-B||Students describe ways in which the principles and subject matter of other disciplines taught in the school are interrelated with the visual arts.|
What do you think a flatboatman does? What objects in this painting make you think so?
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it
should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work,
or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his
boat, the deck-hand singing on the
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the
hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his
way in the morning, or at noon intermission
or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the
young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to
The day what belongs to the day—at night the
party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious
The Treaty of Paris in 1783 ended the American Revolution and set the Mississippi River as the new nation’s western border. With the signing of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the United States acquired an additional eight hundred thousand square miles of land from the Mississippi River west to the Rocky Mountains and from New Orleans north to Canada. The way was open for settlers to move even farther west.
In 1819, artist George Caleb Bingham’s family, like many others, moved west of the Mississippi. They settled in the wilderness town of Franklin in the Missouri Territory, which would become a state two years later. Farmers in the area shipped crops and animals in flatboats down the nearby Missouri River to the Mississippi, and on to the port of New Orleans. From there, goods were shipped to markets on the east coast of the United States.
George Caleb Bingham
Mississippi Boatman, 1850
oil on canvas, 61.3 x 43.7 cm (24 1/8 x 17 3/16 in.)
National Gallery of Art, John Wilmerding Collection
Bingham was a self-trained painter who lived most of his life in Missouri. Working before America’s vastness was made accessible by roads and railways, Bingham found his subjects in the boatmen and trappers who populated his state’s great rivers, the Missouri and the Mississippi. Through these subjects, he captured a taste of life in the West. Bingham may well have witnessed a scene such as the one he recorded in The Jolly Flatboatmen as a child sitting on the banks of the Missouri River.
Flatboats, used to haul freight in the sometimes-shallow inland waterways, were a dying breed when Bingham painted this one in 1846. By then, the Industrial Revolution was well underway, necessitating faster, bigger, and more powerful modes of transportation. Steamboats were seen with increased frequency on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers after the 1820s. Trips that once took months by flatboat now took only a few days. By the 1840s, manpowered flatboats had all but disappeared in favor of technologically advanced, steam-powered boats. Pictured here are eight men taking a break from the labor of navigating their flatboat on the river.
The boat is empty of freight; only a caged fowl, bedrolls, and a raccoon skin are visible. By most accounts, nineteenth-century Missouri boatmen were boisterous and vulgar. This group plays music, dances, and relaxes while their laundry dries. This genre painting, or scene from everyday life, celebrates the common men who lived their lives on the river.
Ask students to imagine they are part of the westward movement in the nineteenth century:
Like Bingham, the poet Walt Whitman (1819–1892) took as his subjects laborers and people performing daily routines. He was intrigued by the humblest and most ordinary of moments. Whitman was born and worked in New York, then took a job in New Orleans, returning home by way of St. Louis, Chicago, the Great Lakes, Niagara Falls, Albany, and the Hudson. Like other nineteenth-century explorers, Walt Whitman traveled around America studying the world around him. In “I Hear America Singing”, he wrote about the jobs he saw performed everyday. What nineteenth-century occupations are mentioned in the poem? Have students use a dictionary or research online any jobs that are unfamiliar. Then students will write a poem about a modern-day job that Walt Whitman and George Caleb Bingham could have never dreamed existed.
Borrow the teaching packet Art&
Borrow the DVD American Art, 1785-1926: Seven Artist Profiles
Borrow the teaching packet The Inquiring Eye: American Painting
Visit SmartFun Online for more interactives about life in earlier America
Add primary sources from the Library of Congress’s “American Memory” project
Explore the Oregon Trail