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Art Analysis: The County Election by George Caleb Bingham, 1852

Use this primary source imagery to analyze major events in history.


Beginning in the late 1840s, Missouri artist George Caleb Bingham created a series of paintings illustrating American democracy. Bingham belonged to the Whig party and, in addition to being an artist, held numerous offices and political appointments throughout the middle of the nineteenth century. The scene in The County Election Figure 1 depicts a group of men coming together to cast their votes on Election Day in Saline County, Missouri, in 1850. The artist himself ran for office in this election and lost. He painted himself sitting at the bottom of the stairs, looking down at what may be a ballot. His opponent, who ultimately was the winning candidate, is tipping his top hat near the top of the stairs of the building in the foreground; the banner on the wall behind him reads: “The will of the people the supreme law.” The hotel sign in the background reads “Union Hotel.” Look carefully at the painting for several minutes before answering the questions that follow.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Who painted The County Election and what is significant to note about his background?
  2. Bingham completed this painting in 1852 but had it engraved in 1854 so copies could be made. How does changing the medium of this painting affect the audience?

Painting of election day, showing children playing games, drunkards raising their glasses (while political operatives drag inebriated men to the poll), citizens talking, and others reading the newspaper.

Figure 1: Men gather to cast their votes on election day.

Comprehension Questions

  1. (Figure 1) What is the focal point of this painting?
  2. (Figure 1) Who is not represented in this painting? Why might that be?
  3. (Figure 1) Notice the way the various people in the crowd are dressed. What does this reveal about them?
  4. (Figure 1) List two details in the painting that provide evidence the artist thinks U.S. democracy is flawed.
  5. (Figure 1) List two details in the painting that provide evidence the artist has a hopeful view of U.S. democracy.

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. What major events were going on in the country at the time this was painted?
  2. Do you think Bingham had a positive or negative view of U.S. democracy, based on this painting? Support your answer with evidence from the painting.