Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on October 12, 2011 in Resource Library with permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the author at:

Telephone: 949-481-7553


Friend of the Family, Two Paintings by George Caleb Bingham

Portrait of Margaret Elizabeth Nelson (Mrs. James Thomas) Birch, 1877 and Forest Hill, the Thomas Nelson House, 1877

by Mary Francey



Better known today for his straightforward views of pre-industrial frontier life and work, George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879) was recognized during his lifetime as a fervent politician and a successful portraitist. A founding member of the Whig Party in Missouri, and a State Representative during the 1840s, he enthusiastically supported the State's request for federal funding to clear the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers to facilitate commerce and encourage travel. Aligned with his political interests are the fewer than 50 paintings of fur traders, trappers, flat-boatmen, and electioneering public officials that document life in developing communities throughout Missouri which had become a state in 1821. In contrast, his portraits of outstanding citizens of Boonville, Liberty, and Columbus number well over a thousand but most of those works are not widely known today.

However, Bingham's ability to capture and record the individual qualities of his subjects is evident in the Portrait of Margaret Elizabeth Nelson (Mrs. James Thomas) Birch. Placed against a serene, luminous landscape, her half-length figure reflects the enduring timeless qualities of the classical architectural column she stands beside. Her dignity and composure affirm her social prominence in an ante-bellum, pre-industrial frontier community that maintained a firm, workable balance between its staunch democratic egalitarianism and vigorous materialism. The Doric column, beside which she is posed, is one of four that dominate the west facade of Forest Hill, then occupied by the Birch family.

Margaret Birch's 1877 portrait, one of three by Bingham, was painted shortly before the birth of her eighth child. In keeping with a family tradition, she is shown with seven flowers in full bloom that represent the seven living Birch children, and a single bud symbolic of the child she is expecting. The strong narrative purpose that characterizes Bingham's genre paintings is evident in the deliberate connection of the portrait and his painting of Forest Hill with the birth of James Erskine Birch.

Forest Hill, the Thomas Nelson House, a view of the substantial, two-story Nelson family home, is one of fourteen extant landscapes by Bingham and the only one dated in his late career. When viewed along with the portrait, the painting offers a rare glimpse of the spirit of frontier culture. Built in 1843 by Thomas Withers Nelson, Margaret Birch's father, Forest Hill was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989 as an example of nineteenth century American Classical (Greek) Revival style. The central foreground figures include Polly, the family's nurse, and two Birch children watching the arrival of the doctor who will attend the baby's birth. Two placid cows placed opposite the two figures on horseback traveling along the road convey a sense of unhurried tranquility, perhaps characteristic of Boonville and other settled frontier communities prior to industrialization. Together the two paintings add to our understanding of a period in American history in which pioneer settlers established cultural traditions unique to an area as they developed strong local markets. The Missouri River, seen beyond the house, supported Boonville's expanding economy as the nation became increasingly mechanized. Such nationalistic themes in much of Bingham's work offer significant insight into the often tense interdependence of nationalistic ideals and those of individual states. While the country's efforts were directed toward more aggressive expansion westward, state governments, including Missouri, were committed to developing resources in areas already populated.

While he was in Boonville for the Whig convention of 1844, Bingham painted portraits of his two close friends, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Withers Nelson, at their Forest Hills Estate. He returned in 1869-70 to paint the Nelson's two married daughters, Mrs. James Day and Mrs. James Thomas James Birch, and again in 1877 to paint Margaret Birch a second time, the work seen here. During that same year he painted Forest Hill, the Thomas Nelson House, then occupied by the Birch family. Margaret Birch was also his model for Palm Leaf Shade, 1878.

The two paintings, generously donated by Margaret Stephens Anderson, Mary L. Stephens, Cordelia Stephens Birrell and William Fulton Stephens, Jr., have added substantial strength to the permanent collection of American Art, Utah Museum of Fine Arts:

copyright © 2011 by Mary F. Francey



(above: George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879), Margaret Elizabeth Nelson (Mrs. James Thomas) Birch, 1877. Collection of Utah Museum of Fine Arts)


(above: George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879), Forest Hill, the Thomas Nelson House, 1877. Collection of Utah Museum of Fine Arts)



About the Author

Mary Francey, Ph.D, is Professor Emerita of Art and Art History, University of Utah, and retired Curator of American Art, Utah Museum of Fine Arts.

Editor's note:

The above essay and related images provided by the author were published on October 12, 2011 in Resource Library with permission by the author granted to TFAO on October 9, 2011. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay or images, please contact the author directly at:

Telephone: 949-481-7553

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