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Mississippi Boatman by George Caleb BinghamGeorge Caleb Bingham (1811-1879), Mississippi Boatman, 1850, oil on canvas, John Wilmerding Collection

George Caleb Bingham's most admired paintings depict the often rowdy lives of men who transported cargo on the Mississippi and other frontier rivers. After rowing shallow draft flatboats to trading posts and packing them with furs, foodstuffs, and other goods, they would float downriver to junctions where the freight would be loaded onto steamboats or railroads for transport to eastern markets. While waiting in riverside towns for the arrival of the larger vessels, the boatmen often passed their time gambling, drinking, and carousing. 

In Mississippi Boatman, a grizzled veteran of the river sits guarding cargo and eyeing us warily; behind him a moored flatboat awaits the next journey upriver. He seems older than the usual characters that populate Bingham's genre scenes, and his shabby shirt, worn trousers, and scuffed boots suggest his down-and-out circumstances. The man's world-weary expression also conveys a sense of resignation. River life was changing drastically at mid-century. Steamboats carried more of the cargo, and  cities and towns were replacing the more rambunctious trading posts. Although eastern audiences still viewed Bingham's  characters as archetypes of the frontier--rugged individuals willing to make their living on the fringes of civilized society--in reality, by mid-century the golden era of the flatboatmen was drawing to a close.

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