Democracy and Genre Painting


Genre painting is the name given to a genre of painting that flourished, among other places and other times, in Mid-Nineteenth Century America. Genre painting in America portrayed the informal social life of a supposedly still unsophisticated  and largely rural America, this movement ending entirely with Winslow Homer’s “Snapping the Whip” (1872), that painting of boys at school recess that is perhaps better known today for its 3D effect of having its participants look as if they are on the verge of breaking out of the frame. These American genre paintings portray people grooming and selling horses, dancing, white people mixing with African Americans, and much else that could be considered informative about what life was like back then if one could trust inferences that are made from an art form, whether that is literature or painting, about what is really going on in the social life of the times. The art historian Elizabeth Johns makes such an attempt with regard to American genre painting and concludes that the paintings present a number of types so as to take a condescending and humorous view of their subject matter and are therefore not to be trusted as a serious set of pictures about the way things were because the pictures are designed to please the city swells who commissioned them. I disagree. I think it is possible, if one is careful, to draw inferences about reality from what might indeed have been painted as fanciful or stylized presentations of the life of the times. More particularly, the pictures, or at least some of them, tell the story of the emergence of democracy in the United States, a subject that historians of the time find crucial but where there is not enough of a documentary trail to explain how that remarkable event took place, something that did not arrive in Great Britain until the Reform Bill of 1886, some fifty year later.

The view of democracy present in John Caleb Bingham’s paintings of electoral events in Missouri during the 1850’s is very different from the theory of democracy put forward by Alexis de Tocqueville some ten years earlier. De Tocqueville concentrated on the New England village and decided that the local town governments met on market days when farmers brought in their produce from their small and hilly farms and would at the same time attend town hall meetings where they would trade favors, a road down in one direction traded off for a road to be constructed the following year in another direction, and so each of the farmers applied their market skills to government: trading off, making deals. This was very different from the South where large plantations did not lead to a democratic way of thinking but rather to a sense where the planter aristocracy could decide things between themselves.

Bingham, on the other hand, notices that democracy is a spectacle that draws people to it. His “The Verdict of the People” (1854) shows the eminent figures in a town sitting on a dias in front of a courthouse while a functionary watches over a ballot box and is there to declare the winners after an appointed committee finishes counting the ballots. All around, in the street, are children and aged and the general crowd of citizenry waiting for the results. They are excited, entertained and engrossed in the drama of the announcement of the results of the election. The courthouse itself is a rather nondescript version of the Greek Revival style then in favor. It is undecorated and yet the most prominent building on the street. There is no church or other civic center to rival it. Democracy is the enthusiasm that brings this crowd together.

This is the same Missouri that had been admitted to the Union just twenty-five years before as a slave state to balance off the admission of Maine to the Union at the same time as a free state, and it is only five years before Missouri would be one of the first battlegrounds in the Civil War. This is the Missouri of the young Mark Twain, before he went west and later went east to finally settle in Hartford. So does this Missouri go democratic because it still carries with it a whiff of the frontier even if Huck Finn finds the place too civilized and is thinking of heading off to Indian Territory? That would be in keeping with Frederick Jackson Turner’s theory of the frontier that argued the unsettled condition of continuing new arrivals would result in people coming to practical decisions and allowing a lot of people of merit, even including women, to rise to the top. Turner’s late Nineteenth Century, Social Darwinist view was that the frontier led to a democracy that was against organized religion, anti-aristocracy, anti-intellectual and individualistic.

But if regional characteristics are the ones that account for democracy, then it would be also advisable to consider New York as the foundation of democracy. It had been a distinctively cosmopolitan and tolerant city ever since it had been New Amsterdam with relatively high populations of people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and as a major port, even before and certainly after the Erie Canal it had the financial clout and sense of itself to make itself democratic. What Bingham is recommending is that we look beyond regionalism to arrive at the causes of the democratic. It is more like a social movement that caught up the nation, the first of many movements that radicalized the population, and that included the utopian sexual and religious communities of the Forties and the Abolitionist Movement of the Fifties.

This view that elections were spectacles and the spread of suffrage was a movement is supported by historians. Daniel Walker Howe, in his “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848”, argues that the vote was extended to include universal white male suffrage so as to include yeoman farmers, craftsman and small entrepreneurs in that it happened before industrialization and so before there was a division between the working class sand their employers. The extension of suffrage was adopted by western states so as to attract people who might move there. Elections were boisterous affairs that might occur twice a year because of the number of offices that had to be filled. So Bingham’s picture of an election comports with that even if he makes it more dramatic and friendly an occasion than it might have been. It was happening everywhere throughout America and so was a tribute to American republicanism at the same time that Europe was becoming ever more firmly divided into its social class strata. It is one meaning of American exceptionalism, ome at least as important as the idea that America would stretch from sea to shining sea.


The picture of America as an exceptional place has another aspect that is also available from consulting another Bingham picture. The information provided in Bingham’s “Fur Traders Descending the Missouri” (1845) is easily established by relying on its original title “”French Trader, Half-Breed Son”. The information not revealed by Bingham’s portraits of other riverboat men is the ethnic nature of at least the more remote of these voyagers. There is a French tradition of traders from Canada wearing shirts and a hat more common in their community than further south in the United States, and the half breed son has an Indian cut to his hair and the wrap under which the furs are protected is decorated with Indian decorations. So the fact of the matter is that there is intermarriage and that the newer generation retains part of its Indian cultural heritage. The question is how long that will last.

What this picture points to, then, is a distinctive feature of American life, which is that it is endlessly assimilationist, the Indian population not only killed but some of them, through intermarriage, absorbed into the ever growing white population, their differences marked by amulets rather than skin tone, as would be the case in South America, where shade tells how many generations of cross breeding separate people from the “pure” Spaniards who had originally settled Hispanic America. The theme of assimilation joins the theme of elections as making for a people without a particular ethnic nature. (I don’t see any historical information supplied by the pet black bear cub at the prow of the boat, though it does add a nice artistic touch, balancing off a picture most of whose interest is at the stern of the boat which is at the other end of the picture.)


Another genre painter of the period provides evidence to support this view. William Sidney Mount portrays African-Americans as farmers, musicians and hangers-on. They seem relatively at ease with white people even though there is some social division between them. The Black farmer sleeping at noon in “Farmers Nooning” (1836) must be somewhat at ease even though he is the one who gets teased rather than the one doing the teasing. (This is a very different interpretation than the one provided by the aforementioned scholar Elizabeth Johns, who sees the sleeping Negro as stereotypically lazy. But the picture does not portray him as lazy, only sleeping.) In Mount’s “Dance of the Haymakers” (1845), a black boy is looking on, making music, rather than participating in the activities. But the situation seems benign. These are freemen, not slaves, because Mount is painting Long Island, not the South, and so there is some hope of easier relations between the races, though one does not know what will happen when industrialism and rebellion get their way. Maybe it was an easier time, one about which to wax nostalgic, when racial relations were more fluid, before worse times set in.

At any rate, the genre painters provide their own independent source of information about the cultural temper of their times and so a way to supplement documentary evidence rather than just to illustrate it. They are a direct vision into what it was like back then however much allowances have to be made for the conventions of representation that made genre painting into a genre that emphasized human interest and humor above the serious nature of what it was portraying.