By Jeff Fox
Some of Missouri’s rich history, as told through the paintings of George Caleb Bingham, will be on display permanently at the newly renovated Historic Courthouse on the Independence Square.
Local attorney Ken McClain, who has assembled a collection of Binghams, is permanently lending those works to the new Jackson County Museum of Art on the second floor of the courthouse, which is being dedicated Saturday.
“What drew me to this is Independence, of course. He is our painter,” McClain said.
Bingham is regionally well known for painting such as “Order No. 11,” depicting the harsh treatment of civilians by Union forces in Jackson County and elsewhere during the Civil War.
Bingham, who served as a Union officer but sharply disagreed with General Order No. 11 issued in 1863, lived in Independence for several years during and after the war. It was on the grounds of what is today the Bingham-Waggoner Mansion that he painted “Order No. 11,” which he called his master work.
“This will give context to the house,” McClain said.
But Bingham, who also was a politician in the early decades of Missouri’s statehood, focused on portraits of individuals more than his well known narrative paintings such as “Fur Traders Descending the Missouri,” “The County Election,” “Jolly Flatboatmen” and “Order No. 11.”
“He painted portraits to earn a living,” McClain points out.
That led to a personal connection for McClain. He and his family live in the Sawyer-Jennings Home in Independence. That home was built by the son of Samuel Locke Sawyer, the area’s first elected judge and, later, a congressmen who Bingham supported politically.
And Bingham painted a portrait of him, which McClain bought several years ago. He started buying other Binghams, mostly portraits, many of them having suffered years of neglect. Some needed extensive and expensive restoration.
“It is probably the largest collection dedicated to Bingham in the country,” he said.
He decided to make a permanent loan of the paintings to the county. Also in that space – the west side of the upstairs of the courthouse – are five Binghams from the Missouri State Historical Society. They are on display into January. A lithograph of “Order No. 11” also is on display.
McClain said the community doesn’t sufficiently capitalize on all this by telling Bingham’s story in a compelling way, though putting the new museum in the courthouse that also houses a city tourism center and the Jackson County Historical Society will help get that message across to more visitors.
“I became convinced we ought to focus on him,” he said.
There is a variety of portraits. There’s James Sydney Rollins, a founder of the University of Missouri – think of the Rollins Quadrangle – who was Bingham’s good friend, political ally and artistic patron. Then there’s John Campbell, who was prominent as a freighter on the Santa Fe Trail, and his cousin, William Campbell, also in the family business. There are judges and artists, husbands and wives, people well known in society in the middle decades of the 19th century. Some of Bingham’s narratives also are on display: “Stump Speaking,” “Jolly Flatboatmen,” “The County Election,” “The Puzzled Witness” and “In a Quandry.”
Steve Noll, executive director of the Jackson County Historical Society, points out that Bingham portrayed the nation’s westward expansion and the development of the political institutions that endure to this day. Putting the paintings in a site such as the Truman Courthouse works well, he said.
“You couldn’t put together a better combination if you tried to,” he said.