Cottage Scenery is one of four paintings by George Caleb Bingham accepted for display at the 1845 exhibition of the American Art-Union, a pioneering organization in the promotion of contemporary American art. Bingham’s first submissions to the Art-Union, these works also were among his earliest forays into the western subject matter that would preoccupy him for more than a decade; the group also included the iconic river picture Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845, Metropolitan Museum of Art). The bucolic scene of farmers before their cottage—sheltered by leafy trees and overlooking pasturing cows, a lake or river, and distant hills—resembles the rustic settlements the artist knew as a youth in rural Missouri. In composing the work, Bingham seems to have taken to heart a statement in the Art-Union’s 1844 annual report. Encouraging American artists to create landscape paintings in order to satisfy the organization’s largely urban membership, the document stated that “those who cannot afford a seat in the country . . . may at least have a country seat in the parlors; a bit of landscape with a green tree, a distant hill, or low-roofed cottage.”
A largely self-taught painter who began his career as a portraitist, Bingham here blends landscape and genre, and as such hints at a transition occurring in his career. The trio of figures in conversation enlivening the picturesque view suggests his growing interest in genre scenes, developed as a result of his contemporary William Sidney Mount’s success in that arena.
Like his masterpieces The Jolly Flatboatmen and Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, Cottage Scenery was purchased by the Art-Union directly from Bingham. Through a lottery, the progressive organization guaranteed its members a chance to win one of the original paintings featured in its annual exhibition. It also popularized those paintings by distributing thousands of prints of them to its members across the country. John D. Carhart of Macon, Georgia, was the recipient of this canvas, which remained in his family for more than 100 years.