George Caleb Bingham
The Jolly Flatboatmen, 1846
Oil on canvas
38 1/8 x 48 1/2 in. (96.8 x 123.2 cm)
Patrons’ Permanent Fund 2015.18.1
Image Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

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After rowing their boat upstream and loading it with cargo, the boatmen in this idealized scene of the American West now leisurely float downriver, enjoying music and dancing after a long day’s work. This iconic image, which was very well known during its own era, captures and immortalizes life on the American frontier in the early days of westward expansion. The inland Mississippi and Missouri rivers, important gateways to the West for pioneers and explorers, were also vital for transportation and trade, stimulating economic growth and cultural change for the young nation. Bingham’s river scenes were widely circulated in northeastern cities, promoting a romanticized sense of the landscape and inhabitants of the burgeoning American West. However, by the time the artist painted The Jolly Flatboatmen in 1846, the idyllic world of the American frontier was quickly changing, and flatboats, like the one pictured here, were rapidly being replaced by faster and more efficient steam-powered vessels.
Select facts derived from the www.NGA.gov collection object page: The Jolly Flatboatmen.

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