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Two St. Louis-area residents have launched a petition demanding that the Saint Louis Art Museum’s cancel its loan of the George Caleb Bingham painting “Verdict of the People” (1854–55) for Donald Trump’s Inaugural Luncheon in Washington, DC later this month. The petition, created by art historian Ivy Cooper of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and St. Louis artist Ilene Berman, has already gone past its original goal of 1,500 signatures and is approaching its new target of 2,500 signatures.
“I think it is important for the museum to withdraw this loan because a withdrawal will challenge the normalization of this presidency,” Berman told Hyperallergic. “It is not that my candidate didn’t win (that has happened many times), but the incoming administration represents something outside the norms of partisan differences and the act of slowing down and reconsidering what is expected is a challenge to its rhetoric and actions. Art has a crucial role in public discourse, and the absence of art does too.”
Cooper agrees and sees the painting’s role as having an added meaning because of its local importance. “The painting … is one of the most beloved in the [Saint Louis Art Museum] collection,” she told Hyperallergic. “As a Missouri painter, Bingham is identified with our state and our community. We think that the presence of the painting at the inaugural luncheon would appear to represent our community, and we object to that use.”
The inclusion of the painting is part of the stagecraft of the Trump inauguration event and has irked many. Many media outlets have pointed out that the painting will be a focal point of the event — St. Louis Public Radio’s segment on the painting’s inclusion, for instance, is titled “Bingham’s ‘Verdict of the People’ to take center stage at Trump’s inauguration.”
The original Associated Press report highlights that Missouri Senator Roy Blunt’s role as an inauguration chair is to put the event in the context of history and tradition, which some may see as an attempt to “normalize” the new administration. The AP article clearly states the intention of the loan, which Senator Blunt announced during a press conference staged in front of the painting:
At a small luncheon honoring Trump and involving congressional leaders in the Capitol’s National Statuary Hall afterward, a painting by 19th-century Missouri artist George Caleb Bingham will be featured.
“Verdict of the People,” is the third of Bingham’s trilogy on American politics and elections, a complicated work symbolizing the strife and rough politics of an era of even greater political and social turmoil than the current one.
Cooper thinks the choice of the painting is particularly inappropriate considering the subject and context. “The painting, ‘Verdict of the People,’ depicts the announcement of election results in a small Missouri town in the mid 19th century,” she said. “I believe the painting and its title were appealing to [Senator] Blunt, as they seem to confirm that the election process represents the will of the people. However, the painting’s use at the inaugural luncheon would elide the fact that though Trump won the electoral vote, he lost the popular vote, by a count of over three million — a fact that the Trump machine is eager to erase from history.”
Berman agrees: “The painting is described as depicting an election in rural Missouri, and is titled, ‘Verdict of the People.’ I imagine those ideas were poetic for the selection committee. Given all of the different obstacles to voting there are in this country, as well as the mismatch between the popular vote and the Electoral College, the painting itself seems particularly unfit.”
Bingham’s 1855 painting depicts the announcement of election results from a county courthouse, and together with two other paintings — “Stump Speaking” (1853–54) and “The County Election” (1852) — it forms a trilogy of works commenting on US democracy. But what many people may not know is that Bingham was elected to the Missouri House of Representatives in 1848, one of the first professional artists to ever win elected office in the United States. This insight gives the painting particular bite, and you can sense his personal knowledge of the subject.
The election Bingham depicts in the trilogy takes place in Saline County, Missouri, where the artist himself was running for a seat in the State Legislature in 1850 and lost. The artist inserts his opponent, Erasmus D. Sappington, as the suspicious candidate in the shiny top hat in “County Election.” The artistic editorializing doesn’t stop there; Bingham’s opponent allegedly tried to buy votes with liquor, which is also hinted at in that painting. Further casting doubt on Sappington’s victory is the fact that he was related to the judge and one of the clerks in Saline County, which aroused suspicion, even if it didn’t change the results. The artist/candidate doesn’t appear to have publicly contested the results, though they clearly had an impact on these paintings. Knowing the context of the works, it’s clear that the artist was well acquainted with democracy’s flaws.
Hyperallergic reached out to the Saint Louis Art Museum to ask if it had a response to the petition and received the following statement from Brent Benjamin, the museum’s director:
The museum takes no position on candidates for public office, nor does it support or oppose individuals elected to such offices. It does, however, support the office of the presidency itself. When the bipartisan Joint Congressional Commission on Inaugural Ceremonies requested the loan of a painting for the Inaugural Luncheon, it was an honor for the museum to participate in this long-standing tradition.
Shortly after we received the statement from the museum, Cooper and Berman received their own response. The pair said:
We are not surprised by the Museum’s response, but take issue with two of its specific claims. First, we feel that the museum falsely assumes that this electoral process was within the bounds of normalcy. We, and the signatories of the petition, do not agree and because of that think the customary responses to requests of this sort need to be made with more care and more concern for the Museum’s community. Second, lending this artwork for this specific inauguration is not an ‘honor’ because it normalizes the hatred, sexual abuse, and disregard for the office expressed by the president elect. We, too, ‘support the presidency’ and believe the withholding of this specific artwork on this occasion would be a strong expression of our community’s respect for the office of the President. Having just heard from Director Brent Benjamin, we intend to take him up on his offer of an in-person conversation to discuss this further.