“Fur Trader and his Half Breed Son” or
“Fur Traders Descending the Missouri”
George Caleb Bingham
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Before research is done, before reading about what others – art historians – say about a work of art, teachers need to ask their students what THEY see and how the work of art speaks to them. Then, the discovery of meaning can begin.
This beautiful painting, “Fur Traders Descending the Missouri,” by George Caleb Bingham, led my students and me on an extraordinary adventure into American history and to the understanding of context in art. In its serene calm, the painting evokes mystery and contemplation.
The easy way to discuss the painting is the structure or form of the work: the use of color, balance, composition, etc. More difficult is to interpret meaning; understanding what the artist is conveying. Meaning cannot be addressed without discussion of context- what was the artist’s world like in 1845?
As I prepared background information for my students, I read articles from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the painting is part of its collection), attended lectures at The National Gallery of Art and read art history books- one of which, written for children, is Sr. Wendy Becket’s American Masterpieces.
While I agreed with most art historian’s points, the flippant referencing to the focal point of the picture: the black animal at the bow of the pirogue boat disturbed me. The animal was referenced by Sr. Wendy as “the mysterious animal chained to the canoe, which in its outline, seems to resemble a cat.” I read the excerpt to my 5th grade students who thought about it wide–eyed. The first student response was that “cats don’t like water.” And, “imagine camping with a pet cat!” All agreed the animal WAS NOT a cat.
The article by the Met pronounced the animal was a bear cub- without an explanation why it would be. My students asked, “Were bear furs traded?”
Some historians have named the mysterious animal an owl. Really?
These questions lead to the discussion of the Voyageurs and fur trapping in North America. What furs were traded? How does a trapper work? We researched the process of trapping, and came to the conclusion that fur trappers needed scent to set their traps. This animal in the boat was not a cat, a bear or an owl –but a fox or a beaver! On closer inspection, and after comparing photographs of the animals- all conclusively decided the animal was a fox kept by the men to collect urine samples for setting traps.
Yet, with our discovery of what we believed was the true identity of the animal (my students were jubilant with their creative, thoughtful and intelligent deduction) we still wondered why Bingham placed such emphasis on this animal; it alone is balancing the weight of the pirogue- all the weight is toward the stern: pelt packs (which average 80 lbs in weight, and two humans (about 200 lbs). Realistically, the boat would be elevated in the bow, sinking in the stern. This animal carried more weight than just a wild fox; it was symbol representing something very important. What could it be?
By chance, I discovered an old book “Quadrupeds of North America” by John James Audubon, first published in 1846 at a library sale for $2. Immediately I thought about the black fox in the Bingham painting. A beautiful depiction of the fox is in this book: Vulpes Fulvus.-Desm. The written description states that the black fox has the most valuable fur in the world; it surpasses beaver and otter and it is scarce in North America. A live female black fox was sent by the Hon. Hudson Bay Co. to Audubon for an artist’s model and later kept at the Zoological Gardens in London (as America had no zoos at the time) for further study. Additionally, it was noted, the black fox had significant symbolism for Native Indian tribes.
In Morten’s New English Canaan it states, “The skin of the black fox was considered by the Indian Natives equivalent to 40 beaver skins; and when offered and accepted by their kings, it was looked upon as a sacred pledge of reconciliation.”
When Bingham created the painting, America’s boundaries were changing. The Louisiana Purchase was being explored and settled, the concept of Manifest Destiny was introduced, Lewis and Clark’s Voyage of Discovery was chronicled and discussed, the economics of fur trading was shifting, the Indian Wars had commenced.
Life along the Missouri, the “Big Muddy,” was anything but peaceful and tranquil as pictured in Bingham’s painting. The river itself was difficult to navigate, and we can identify the river with Bingham’s inclusion of deadheads and murky water depicted in the painting. Yet the water is calm. We know the man is a voyageur because of his dress; we know the boy is his son because Bingham titled the work, “Fur Trader and his Half Breed Son” (the original title was changed to “Fur Traders Descending the Missouri” by the American Art-Union to avoid controversy).
French fur traders who regularly traveled the Missouri, a major artery for trade, knew to load the pirogues with heavy weight in the front bow to assist with river navigation. In the front of Bingham’s pirogue is a very important focal point, balancing the whole scene. These are all clues to the meaning of the work.
A growing population of “Metis,” mixed race descendants of French fur traders and Native Indian mothers, had no place in white or patrilineal tribes. These children were outcasts in both societies. The Treaty of Prairie du Chien in 1830, established Nemaha, a half breed reservation for these displaced people. This allotment of land along the Missouri River Bluffs was “too steep and tree covered for farming; fit only for hunting.” White settler squatters were enraged and occupied more than half of the reservation land, creating huge conflict.
Bingham was not only educated as an artist, a lawyer and a preacher. He was involved with the government of Missouri and certainly was involved with issues of race and land rights. Throughout his life, Bingham held strong beliefs about morality,democracy and politics in America. He often used his art to show his political views. In his painting, “Fur Trader and his Half Breed Son,” Bingham creates an allegorical, moralistic landscape embedded with a symbol for peace, the black fox.
It is not a painting about how the political landscape was, but rather what it should be.
My students and I were excited to make the discovery of meaning of the painting together. Their Art History lesson connected American History, Literature (with The Journals of Lewis and Clark), Geography, Physics, Economics and Character Education. One boy announced, “This was the best art lesson ever!” We didn’t accept an easy explanation of the painting, but persisted in our questioning and came to our own educated decision that was a great revelation.
“Black Fox” by Thomas Drasdauskis