Nearly 40 years ago, the schoolchildren of Missouri raised funds to save the priceless drawings of George Caleb Bingham. As a result, their efforts can be seen in the exhibition, Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River, on view at the Saint Louis Art Museum through May 17. The largest comprehensive display of Bingham’s river paintings and drawings ever created, the exhibition includes 22 paintings and more than 50 drawings and prints.
Widely known as “the Missouri artist,” Bingham gained recognition for his 1840s paintings of life in the American West. These paintings were accompanied by numerous sketches and drawings, inspired by 19th century frontier life along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.
In 1974, these drawings were at risk of being sold by the St. Louis Mercantile Library to fund air conditioning for the building. To keep these valuable drawings in Missouri, then Gov. Christopher (Kit) Bond launched a statewide campaign to raise funds for the drawings to be purchased and placed in a trust to be owned by the citizens of Missouri.
To kick off this groundbreaking fund-raising effort, students across Missouri solicited spare change from their friends and families to help raise the money needed to buy the drawings. Ultimately, children representing more than 300 schools throughout the state raised more than $25,000, inspiring the state legislature, businesses and other individuals to contribute to the cause. Today, the drawings are held in the Bingham Trust, established for the benefit of “The People of Missouri”, and will never be sold or separated.
“Thanks to the children of Missouri, George Caleb Bingham’s drawings were kept together as a singular body of works of art that provide invaluable insight into the artist’s working process and his important river paintings,” said Melissa Wolfe, curator and head of the Art Museum’s department of American Art. “We should all be grateful for their role in saving these special works for everyone to see and enjoy.”