Kansas City Filmmakers Give Missouri Painter George Caleb Bingham An Overdue Close-Up

Oct 26, 2016

The Missouri painter George Caleb Bingham is already famous enough to have his work in the National Gallery of Art, as well as many other esteemed institutions. But to his hometown of Arrow Rock, population 56, he could stand to be more famous.

Arrow Rock sits on a Missouri River bluff about an hour and a half east of Kansas City. A small brick house Bingham built there in the 1830s is among the 19th century structures that have earned the whole town designation as a National Historic Landmark. Three years ago, an organization called the Friends of Arrow Rock, seeking to boost its heritage tourism prospects, enlisted Kansas City's Wide Awake Films to help get Bingham's story to wider audiences.

As it turns out, the artist's life story had a narrative as grand as those in his paintings.

"We recognized an opportunity and seized it," says Shane Seley of Wide Awake Films. "We looked around, and there's never been a documentary or a contemporary visual approach to George Caleb Bingham."

Bingham was born in the early 1800s and taught himself to paint. His portraits of elite Missourians brought him a steady income, but he grew restless and began painting scenes of frontier life that captured the country's imagination — though not before suffering through small-pox and losing a wife and child. Disturbed by pre-Civil War violence along the border, Bingham ran for office and lost — but he also created a series of election paintings tensely populated with passionate and dubious characters that, but for their pretechnology setting, might as well have been based on today's headlines. 

Bingham's pro-Union politics lost him favor with some Missouri art collectors, and his health declined. After his death, his paintings were scattered and forgotten, until the 1930s.

The American Artist: The Life & Times of George Caleb Bingham opens with a curator from the Metropolitan Museum of Art discovering Bingham's iconic "Fur Traders Descending the Missouri" in a New York antique store — a scene shot in Kansas City near Wide Awake's River Market headquarters.

When the Friends of Arrow Rock approached them, Wide Awake had already established a reputation for making historical films.

"For 20 years, we've been doing Civil War documentaries and 19th century work for museums and institutions across the United States," Seley notes.

The filmmakers' access to a network of elite historical re-enactors and an extensive wardrobe were essential. Because much of Bingham's life predates photography, the filmmakers called on those connections to act out scenes from the artist's life, giving a feature-film look to the project.

Strikingly, it wasn't that hard to recreate the stunning natural light Bingham captured in his paintings.

Cole Nowlin and Churchill Clark as Bingham's fur traders. Clark designed and carved this dugout canoe himself. Bingham's famous 'Fur Traders Descending the Missouri' was recreated at Lake Jacomo.
Credit Courtesy Wide Awake Films

"We just shot it where he painted," Seley says.

"And we tried to film in that golden hour of sunrise or sunset," adds Wide Awake's Keith Johnson. "It was a gamble, depending on what the weather would do, but so many times it worked in our favor. For the iconic shot of the fur traders in the canoe, we had a crew waiting at the river at sunrise and it happened to be perfect."

A high-tech camera helped, but mostly, the filmmakers spent months studying paintings and locations.

A scene from 'The American Artist' depicts Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Harry Wehle (played by Marcus Hurst) discovering Bingham's famous painting in a New York antique store in the 1930s. The scene was shot in Kansas City's River Market neighborhood.
Credit Courtesy Wide Awake Films

"We did have a wealth of Bingham's paintings and imagery," explains Wide Awake's Keith Johnson. "We walked a fine line between recreating a scene how it would have looked in real life, with the understanding that Bingham exaggerated, changed things, made things up. We made several scouting trips to look at buildings."

Playing Bingham is St. Louis native Gregory Sporleder. Also in key roles are curators: Stephanie Fox Knappe of the Nelson, which has 19 Bingham oil paintings and one drawing in its collection; Joan Stack of the State Historical Society of Missouri; Melissa Wolfe of the Saint Louis Art Museum; and Elizabeth Kornhauser of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Seley says an off-camera conversation with Kornhauser suggested that Bingham is due for wider acclaim. 

Directors Shane Seley (seated, in Civil War cap) and Keith Johnson (in shorts) discuss an upcoming scene on location for 'The American Artist.'
Credit Courtesy Wide Awake Films

"She told us that Navigating the West, the Met's last Bingham exhibition, got a really great review from the New York Times," Seley says. "She said she usually doesn't get good reviews. But if you read the review, it's fabulous. That just speaks to the power of his work."

After the film's rollout to Missouri museums over the next two months, the filmmakers hope it will eventually end up on television. Its 60-minute length and formatting is public- and cable-television-ready. And if their experience is any indication, the Friends of Arrow Rock should be happy as well.

"We were already passionate about all things 19th century, and passionate about telling stories of our hometown heroes," Johnson says. "Many of us in the office have friends and family members who may have had passing name recognition with George Caleb Bingham, but to learn about what an amazing guy he was was really inspiring."

The American Artist: The Life & Times of George Caleb Bingham, film and discussion, 6-8 p.m. Thursday, October 27, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak Street, Kansas City, Missouri, 64111. Free tickets are available here.

C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.