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The County Election Featured at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
George Caleb Bingham's iconic American painting "The County Election" will be on view at VMFA as the nation prepares to vote in November. The 1851-52 oil on canvas measures 35-7/16 by 48-3/4 inches. (Collection of the Saint Louis Art Museum)

RICHMOND, VA.- As the nation prepares to vote in national, state and local races this fall, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is spotlighting an iconic American painting, George Caleb Bingham’s “The County Election.” The painting will be on view at VMFA Oct. 11 through Dec. 28.

The 1851-52 oil on canvas, on loan from the Saint Louis Art Museum – which is the largest repository of Bingham’s art – will be displayed alongside figure drawings for the painting that were integral to its development, and prints made from the finished work.

“The County Election” was the first of three paintings in Bingham’s so-called election series, all of which were also engraved. A print of the second image, “Stump Speaking,” from VMFA’s own collection will also be featured.

Bingham, who was born in 1811 in Augusta County, Va., was both a politician and a painter who “brought all of his powers of human observation to bear in his clear-eyed exploration of the democratic principle at work in ‘The County Election,’” says Dr. Sylvia Yount, VMFA’s Louise B. and J. Harwood Cochrane Curator of American Art.

“It was the finished prints that accounted for the popularity of Bingham’s painting, lending it national appeal in mid-19th-century Jacksonian America,” she says. Bingham worked with Philadelphia artist John Sartain, who pioneered the use of mezzotint engraving in the United States, to reproduce the painting as a highly successful large-scale print. Yount says Sartain was regarded as the nation’s greatest engraver.

“The County Election,” which measures about 3 by 4 feet, is a “landmark work that focuses on a quintessentially American subject rarely addressed by other artists of the day,” Yount says.

The figure drawings represent the earliest surviving stages of Bingham’s creative process, according to Yount. “Each shows the care with which the artist conceived and defined his cast of characters, and, as a group, the drawings reveal Bingham’s experimentation with type, pose and gesture.”

After the painting was finished, Bingham worked with Sartain on early trial proofs for the engraving. He made subtle changes to ensure its relevance and appeal to the widest possible audience. For example, he changed the banner on a newspaper held by the seated figure on the far right from “Missouri Republican” in the painting to “The National Intelligencer” in the engraving.

He told Sartain he wanted “the design to be as national as possible – applicable alike to every section of the Union, and illustrative of the manner of a free people and free institutions.”

Because prints were more affordable than paintings, they were an important component in Bingham’s “The County Election” project. To increase public interest, he painted a second version of the work and took it on a multi-state tour, exhibiting it in storefronts and encouraging those who saw it to purchase a subscription for the print. (That painting is also owned by the Saint Louis Art Museum.)

Although Bingham was a Virginian whose roots in the state reached back two generations, he made his fame in painting and politics in Missouri. As an artist, he was well known for his scenes of everyday life west of the Mississippi. As a politician, he won election as a Missouri state representative in 1848. He died in 1879.

The Bingham display is one of a series of free VMFA “spotlight loan” exhibitions that will cast new light on works from the museum’s permanent collection by showing them with major loans from private and public holdings across the U.S. and abroad.

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