The Astonishing Hidden Tale of Bingham's "Horse Thief"
GEORGE CALEB BINGHAM, American, 1811-1879 Title: HORSE THIEF Medium: Oil on canvas Size: 29 x 35 ¾ inches Painted 1852, New York City Private Collection
Excerpted from LEONARDO'S HOLY CHILD, Chapter "Wandering Paintings in Search of an Author" Copyright©2016, 2020 by Fred R. Kline Director & Editor, George Caleb Bingham Catalogue Raisonne https://www.binghamcatalogue.org/home www.klinegallery.com
WHAT DID BINGHAM INTEND TO CREATE WITH "HORSE THIEF?" Why did he make such an unusual painting? What would a 19th century observer see in it? What should we be seeing beyond a stormy landscape and a static miniature scene? The action seemed frozen and unresolved. Was that all there was to it? Is it an allegory? Nothing else seemed to be going on in the vast wilderness except the weather.
When I finally sat down to study “Horse Thief”, and it took many months trying to read it, I began to fit the surprising pieces together and decipher its coded message. When my eyes did open, the tale of the painting became nothing less than astonishing, a work of real genius. ~ “Horse Thief” could be an opening scene right out of a John Ford Western movie. It opens with a dramatic landscape of towering rock features, three distant small-scale horsemen with a prisoner on foot traveling through a desolate pass, dark storm clouds threatening, mountains looming in the distance. The scene is unfolding from a high bluff not too far away. You hear thunder rumble, hear the static of wind, sense the dynamic forces of nature working. Why are they in the middle of nowhere and what is going on? The circumstances are a mystery. Curiosity is aroused. There must be a clue. Then the camera, our eyes, slowly zooms in for a closer look at the men.
"Horse Thief": the Mosaic Judgment Stone rising in the background.
The horsemen are bearded and dressed in wide-brimmed hats that sport jaunty blue and white feathers. Just a jaunty fashion? Perhaps an unknown affiliation? Two of the men are carrying rifles. They are all dressed in a pseudo-military style, wearing red and blue flannel garb commonly found in the Western frontier of late 18th and early 19th century America. They could be vigilantes or bounty hunters or even militia from a frontier town. The horsemen have a captive in tow—hands bound, hatless, and dressed more or less like them. A very close look reveals the prisoner’s head is bleeding. He walks beside them, a slow progress that ominously suggests they may not go much further with him. Has he walked his last mile? The prisoner’s crime is a mystery. Whether he is guilty or innocent, whatever his crime, he is nevertheless a prisoner. Why is he a prisoner? You search for a reason.
Horse Thief": a tranquil pond and a grove of trees highlighting a suggestive hanging branch.
Symbolic clues begin to appear. A few steps in front of the prisoner, by the lead horseman who has stopped, lies a large claw-like piece of deadwood. It resembles a crown of thorns. You wonder if this pitiable man is suggesting a Jesus-like figure? His head is bloodstained. Behind him, within the large rock outcropping, a tombstone-like monolith suggests an opened burial vault. Now the symbolism becomes clear and you get it: the prisoner is meant to suggest Jesus resurrected and on his way to Calvary to be crucified. That’s it! The execution of an innocent man about to be repeated. Here, the narrative seems to pause.
Horse Thief": Mosaic Judgment Stone, at right, and Tomb of Jesus, at left.
The horsemen have ridden into a fierce wind. A hat brim bends back, the riders’ scarves flutter behind them, small trees sway violently. The wind and the rumbling thunder are the only suggested sounds. The lead horseman has paused and leans forward in his saddle. Nearby, a small quiet pond and a grove of trees comes into sharper view. The peaceful oasis with its still water offers a place for rest and meditation, a possible reflective moment amidst the gathering storm. Is a life or death decision about to be made? That seems to be the question.
Light from an opening in the clouds puts the leader in sharp focus. One suspects that swift frontier justice could proceed with the prisoner. The wind is coming right at them. A solitary branch juts out of a dark tree in the grove, into a spot of light in the sight-line of the leader. A possible hanging tree? Horse thieves were routinely hung without a trail. The prisoner’s fate seems to weigh in the balance. The threatening tempest overhead leaves little doubt that a thunderstorm may quickly come on. An observer might think that they are surely going to hang him. All seems to be lost. Is that it? Is this the story?
"Horse Thief": Eyes of God in a cloud.
Then another surprising clue appears. Immediately above the lead rider, and also caught in the passing light, an imposing figurative stone rises hauntingly from a mound of earth. Is a vague presence watching them, perhaps overseeing or even judging the events taking place? The stone could symbolize something. But what? Suddenly you realize the veiled sculpture is standing in judgment of the events about to unfold. A symbolic judgment stone? Then, like a revelation, you see it is more than that! You recognize the iconic figure of Moses holding the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, a familiar depiction recognizable to most anyone from Biblical prints and paintings. A moral judgment of the situation is clearly being suggested by the looming symbolic presence of Moses.
The slain “Beast of the Apocalypse” appears in the clouds.
Then the story starts to come together. The Mosaic law, the example of Jesus, must apply to the prisoner. You begin to see the implication. Those ancient moral codes represented by Moses and Jesus are the cornerstones of the American code of law, the Constitution. And altogether they will offer, or should offer, the final judgment of the prisoner’s fate. Guilty or innocent, the prisoner is entitled to a trial by jury. What laws did he break? What laws are in question? Two commandments come to mind. Thou Shalt Not Kill reminds the captors not to take a life, and the law, into their own hands. Thou Shalt Not Steal could speak to the captive’s presumed crime, perhaps a horse thief. And fittingly, as the two ideas come together, you might think: Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right.
Even if the prisoner were guilty he was entitled to justice and a trial, the Constitutional right of every American. Of course! This is clearly an allegory and much more than it seems. Old Testament and New Testament mingle and the lessons of Jesus and Moses rise up to guide the viewer into realizing that the United States and the Constitution have incorporated that religious guidance into law.
My eyes keep searching for more clues. I looked to the sky searching for another sign of hope and I was taken aback. There in the fantastic storm cloud at upper right were two distinctly white eye-like puffs looking out by an opening of blue sky, clearly suggesting that the celestial presence of God may be looking down on the men. The two “eyes” are also noticeably reflected on the Mosaic stone—a reminder that the Ten Commandments came from God. And then, continuing to scan the sky, a shocking specter materialized in the cloud. Hard to believe but there it was, another sign, unmistakably—an evocation in the dark clouds of the slain Beast of the Apocalypse. It lay vanquished on its back. The slain beast was forecasting that Justice will prevail over Injustice, good over evil.
The action has stopped at the oasis. The artist is doubtless encouraging the viewer and the men on horseback to pause and think about the situation, to act judiciously and not too quickly. The future remains a question but the prisoner is still alive and does not have a noose around his neck. He is still on his feet. There is still hope that justice will prevail, that the prisoner will live to offer a defense for his accused crime. A divine edict was unfolding in “Horse Thief”, calling for moral vigilance in that circa 1850 moment and in America’s future.
Was it a time of crisis?
On America’s expanding Western frontier at mid-19th century there was a crisis of Lawlessness versus Civilization, vigilante justice versus Constitutional justice. The questions, after some reflection, become clear: Would the nation accept lynch law or uphold the Constitution supported by the Judeo-Christian moral code handed down by God, Moses, and Jesus? Can lawlessness and morality exist side by side in the United States? What will be the fate of American Democracy as the United States expands westward into the untamed wilderness? The questions were all asked in the painting. Nature in all its divine power hosts and is even sensitive to the unfolding events in “Horse Thief”, but human affairs hold the spotlight at center stage.
The choice is ours.