By JASON ROSENBAUM, St. Louis Public Radio
A legendary 19th century Missouri artist will be the center of attention after Donald Trump is sworn in as president.
George Caleb Bingham’s “Verdict of the People” will be showcased at a luncheon following Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20. The event, which takes place in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol, is a celebration for the president, vice president, congressional leaders and other invited guests.
U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt selected “Verdict of the People” for display. It’s part of Bingham’s three-part Election Series, a visual representation of American democracy during the 1850s that is on display at the St. Louis Art Museum. (Blunt chairs the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, which gives him the responsibility to choose the work of art to be displayed at the luncheon.)
The Republican senator said there are some intriguing parallels at play, especially because Statuary Hall was where the House of Representatives convened in the 1850s.
“This is an 1854, 1855 or so view from Bingham’s point of view of the election of the people, the announcing of that election,” Blunt said. “All of the people elected to the House would have been elected in a very similar circumstance to this. So interestingly, we’ll be back in the 1850s home of the Congress. And there’ll be an 1850s view of what Election Day and the announcing of the results would have been like.”
“Verdict of the People” captures how electoral politics creates emotional tension, especially as America was careening into Civil War. Whether inadvertently or purposefully, it provides a snapshot of how limited the electorate was during that period: Only white men were allowed to vote.
Still, Bingham’s painting incorporates women and enslaved black people. It also showcases different classes, including well-to-do farmers, laborers, merchants, immigrants and veterans.
“Bingham gets to the tensions that were in the 1850s,” said Melissa Wolfe, curator for American art at the St. Louis Art Museum. “It is some the most volatile moments of the slavery debate. And so you have issues of women’s rights and temperance and aberrations to natural freedom on one side. And [then] slavery, which would be seen as an aberration of natural freedom, on the other.
“Bingham I think is celebratory, but also understands the vulnerability of democracy and that sort of open debate,” she added. “And so I think it remains a very pertinent painting to today – and as much or maybe more than it did in the 1850s.”
In addition to his role an artist, Bingham was elected to the Missouri House of Representatives as a Whig. Along with Thomas Hart Benton, he’s one of the few Missourians who successfully combined art and Show Me State politics to mass success. (Benton’s Social History of Missouri mural at the Missouri State Capitol is considered one of the state’s artistic and cultural masterpieces.)
In addition to examining Bingham’s work, Blunt said he considered plenty of Benton paintings before coming to his decision. He said “Verdict of the People” “just seemed to fit the setting in the best way.”
“And I actually do think the use of that room when it was actively used by the House every day occurring at exactly the same time this particular “Verdict of the People” has been put on canvas by Bingham is an interesting connection of the two events,” said Blunt, who earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in history.
Blunt said the painting would be out of the St. Louis Art Museum for most of January.
Blunt predicts Tillerson will get confirmed
Meanwhile, Blunt provided his support for Trump’s nominee for secretary of state: ExxonMobil’s Rex Tillerson.
The decision to pick Tillerson to lead the State Department created some controversy. For one thing, Tillerson experience is limited to the business world. And senators from both parties have questioned his ties with Russia, pointing to Tillerson receiving the “Order of Friendship” from the country’s political leaders.
Blunt, though, doesn’t share those concerns.
“His career, his background, his ability to function in very difficult parts of the world really will bring an important understanding of how the world works to the State Department,” Blunt said. “I’ve known him for a number of years. I like him. I have confidence in him. And unless something occurs during the confirmation process, which I have no reason to know about right now, I’ll certainly be supporting him.”
Blunt said Tillerson’s work in Russia and elsewhere actually shows his operational skill in challenging environments.
“[Russia] has also recognized American sports figures and others,” Blunt said. “And I don’t think that indicates any kind of relationship that we should be concerned about at all. He’ll be secretary of state of the United States. And I think he’s well prepared for that.”
Given the slim GOP majority in the Senate, only three Republican senators would have to join with the Democratic caucus to sink a Trump nominee.