George Caleb Bingham, Boatmen on the Missouri, 1846
Oil on canvas, 25 1/8 x 30 1/4 in. (63.8 x 76.8 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd, 1979.7.15
In the nineteenth century, major rivers served as interstate highways for steamboats carrying passengers and cargo. Missouri River steamboats were refueled by “woodhawks,” men in small boats loaded with firewood. George Caleb Bingham’s painting presents these boatmen as mediators between nature, represented by the surrounding wilderness, and civilization, symbolized by the steamboat. Although Bingham’s scene evokes an overall feeling of ease, the surface of the water bubbles behind their raft, and the large branch at the left of the composition suggests the dangers that lie below the river’s surface beyond their view.
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