The St. Louis Art Museum has an unexpected political controversy on its hands. The museum’s decision to lend one of its most famous paintings, Missouri artist George Caleb Bingham’s The Verdict of the People (1854-55), for use at Donald Trump’s inaugural luncheon on Jan. 20 has raised widespread protest. A petition to cancel the loan has gathered over 2,000 signatures.
The loan request was initiated by Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, the chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. The petition against the loan is being led by Ilene Berman, a studio art fellow at St. Louis University, and art historian Ivy Cooper, who teaches at Southern Illinois University.
“We reject the use of the painting to suggest that Donald Trump’s election was truly the ‘verdict of the people,’” the petition states. St. Louis Art Museum director Brent Benjamin has countered the petition by declaring, “The museum takes no position on candidates for public office.”
In the midst of this latest art war, neither side is talking in detail about the painting itself, which, with its 46-by-65-inch size and rendering of an Election-Day crowd, invites scrutiny. That’s too bad. The painting is the culmination of the three-part Election Series paintings that Bingham completed between 1852 and 1855 and is a nuanced depiction of the American political process.
“I intend it to be a representation of the scene that takes place at the close of an exciting political contest, just when the final result of the ballot is proclaimed from the stand of the judges,” Bingham wrote of The Verdict of the People. The painting lives up to Bingham’s intentions, but it does so by offering mixed messages.
The men who dominate the painting have accepted the election’s results. They show no signs of turning violent, but they are far from the embodiment of democracy at its best. They are democracy as a hectic undertaking in which those who take politics seriously are inseparable from those who view politics as a spectacle.
The painting was begun just as the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act of Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois became law. The act had the consequence of making the question of slavery in the territories one for voters in the territories to decide rather than keeping slavery split along the North-South lines that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had established.
Bingham was no political naïf. In 1848 he served as a Whig in the Missouri state legislature. Later, as a result of his opposition to slavery, he became a Republican, and during the Civil War he served as state treasurer in the provisional government of Missouri from 1862 to 1865. Bingham saw the Kansas-Nebraska Act as a terrible burden for the country. “The deed is done, and a storm is now brewing,” he wrote at the time the act passed Congress.
In The Verdict of the People, the forces that would bring about the Civil War are very present. In the lower left of the painting, an African-American laborer, a bandanna wrapped around his head, pushes a wheelbarrow. He moves away from, rather than toward, the election crowd. He is clearly a political nonparticipant rather than a welcome participant.
He is not the only outsider to the political process. In the upper right-hand corner of the painting on the balcony of a building overlooking the street, a group of women stand by themselves with a temperance banner. At this time the temperance movement, as Nancy Rash has pointed out in her study, The Painting and Politics of George Caleb Bingham, was identified with the anti-slavery cause, and so we have on a diagonal line from each other representatives of the two largest groups in antebellum America denied the vote.
But Bingham not only makes his doubts about the inclusiveness of American democracy visible in The Verdict of the People. He lets us see his anxiety over the way politics are carried out by those who have the right to vote.
In the center of the painting, outlined against the sky, the American flag flies. But the flag does not dominate the scene despite its prominence. In the foreground of the painting sits a drunken man, unable to get to his feet, his head bent down. He and the flag are on the same visual axis.
Behind the seated drunk, a knot of men appear to be talking seriously with each other, but these men are bracketed by celebrants who, judging by their red faces, have, in all too many cases, been drinking heavily. A man with several hats on his head sticks out from the rest of the crowd. The best guess is that he has won the hats betting on the election and is showing off his spoils. But no matter what the explanation for him is, we are far from the quiet, thoughtful citizenry Bingham depicted in his earlier election painting, Stump Speaking.
For those celebrating the 2016 election, as well as those protesting it, “The Verdict of the People” leaves much to worry about, even though it shows a peaceful election. For Bingham, the years before the Civil War were not a time to sentimentalize over. They were, like the present moment, a time for reflection.
Nicolaus Mills chairs the literature department at Sarah Lawrence College. He is author of American and English Fiction in the Nineteenth Century.