Story by Joan Stack, Curator of Art Collections, The State Historical Society of Missouri

Artworks can function like time machines, transporting us into the past as they engage our intellects and imaginations. As Missourians prepare to commemorate the 200th anniversary of our statehood, historic paintings, sculptures, posters, prints, and illustrations can help us better understand our history. Here, ten very different artworks from institutions across Missouri represent various eras of our state’s past. The list includes only works by artists who are no longer living, as we will let works from the most recent five decades be evaluated in the future. Nevertheless, this overview reflects the complex and powerful lessons that Missourians can learn by studying the state’s art.

Portrait of William Clark as Governor of the Missouri Territory
Chester Harding, St. Louis Mercantile Library, circa 1820, Jefferson Library, University of Missouri-St. Louis campus


In his painting, Portrait of William Clark as Governor of the Missouri Territory in the St. Louis Mercantile Library, Chester Harding (1792–1866) represents the famous explorer as the chief executive who oversaw the unorganized western lands acquired from France with the Louisiana Purchase. The territorial headquarters were in St. Louis, and Clark held the post from 1808 until 1821. In 1820, shortly before he failed to be elected as the state of Missouri’s first governor, Clark commissioned the ambitious young painter Chester Harding to paint this monumental life-size portrait.

The composition recalls portraits of other political leaders of the era, in particular Gilbert Stuart’s 1796 Lansdowne portrait of George Washington. Like Stuart’s Washington, Harding’s Clark seems to have just risen from his office chair as a curtain of imperial scarlet is pulled back to reveal a landscape. Harding’s exterior scene reflects William Clark’s past and present. Verdant woodlands line the banks of what appears to be the confluence of two rivers, likely the Mississippi and the Missouri, a few miles from Clark’s St. Louis office. One river, presumably the Missouri, flows from the direction of a rugged mountain range on the horizon, symbolic, no doubt, of the Rocky Mountains that Clark encountered during his journey west with the Corps of Discovery between 1803 and 1806.

Missouri Indian, Oto Indian, Chief of the Puncas, hand-colored aquatint engraving
Karl Bodmer (engraved by Johan Hürlimann), circa 1840, The State Historical Society of Missouri Art Gallery, Columbia


The State Historical Society of Missouri’s hand-colored aquatint engraving Missouri Indian, Oto Indian, Chief of the Puncas faithfully reproduces portraits created by German artist Karl Bodmer (1809–1893) during the exploration of the Missouri River and its environs led by Prince Maximilian of Wied in 1833–1834. It is an accident of history that among Euro-Americans, Bodmer’s portrait of Mahinkacha, a young Missouri Indian who was neither a chief nor diplomat, has come to represent the native nation that gave the modern state its name.

Bodmer’s is the only nineteenth-century portrait by an established artist known to represent a member of the ancient Missouria nation. Prince Maximilian wrote that Bodmer made the portrait of “an athletic Missouri youth” on May 16, 1834. The youth, called Mahinkacha or “Maker of Knives,” had encamped with a group of about thirty Otoe and Missouria people near Joseph Roubidoux’s trading house. Maximilian’s boat arrived at the site, and during the expedition’s overnight stay, Mahinkacha posed for Bodmer with a blanket draped over one arm and shoulder. The youth’s neck and ears were ornamented with jewelry made from the colorful trade beads known as wampum, and he wore his hair shorn with a central hair-lock.

The two other portraits in the engraving were made on different occasions. All three native people are depicted gazing into space with stoic expressions that imbue their figures with dignity. The mere making of the portraits encourages spectators to view the figures with respect and historic objectivity, but their aloof aspect discourages psychological empathy.

Gen. Order No. 11
George Caleb Bingham, 1869–70, The State Historical Society of Missouri Art Gallery, Columbia


Shortly after the US Civil War, artist George Caleb Bingham (1811–1879) painted Gen. Order No. 11, now in the gallery of the State Historical Society of Missouri. The picture depicts the enforcement of a military edict issued in the wake of William Quantrill’s 1863 anti-Union guerrilla raid on Lawrence, Kansas. To cut off supply lines to Missouri guerrillas sympathetic to the Confederacy, the US Army ordered most civilians in four western Missouri counties to evacuate their homes. Despite his Unionist loyalties, Bingham was outraged by what he saw as a needless and unwise abuse of military power.

While Gen. Order No. 11 visualizes a particular event, its theatrical style and monumental size connect it with traditional “grand manner” paintings that convey universal truths through the representation of historical events. Bingham painted a scene of violation and loss, as callous military personnel loot homes, burn property, and kill a noncompliant civilian. The Civil War permanently altered American society, and one can interpret the picture as emblematic of the human costs of the war. The droves of refugees, including two African Americans in the foreground, also reflect the unsettled future of war-torn Missouri, which, like the nation, remained deeply divided along racial and sectional lines.

The Wood-Boat
George Caleb Bingham, 1850, St. Louis Art Museum


George Caleb Bingham (1811–1879) sold his painting The Wood-Boat, now at the St. Louis Art Museum, to the American Art Union in 1850. There it was displayed in that institution’s free gallery to thousands of New Yorkers. For these viewers, this scene represented the exotic working people and landscape of the western frontier.

Wood boats were the gas stations of the riverboat age. The engines of the giant steamboats required huge amounts of timber. Entrepreneurial Missourians could make their livings cutting down trees and selling the wood that supplied these boats with fuel. The Wood-Boat is thus a picture about American commerce and enterprise. Though the standing central figure is a common laborer, his physique and classical pose endow him with the robust dignity of an ancient Greek athlete. His virile form and the fertile landscape behind him suggest the fecundity of Missouri’s human and natural resources, while the boy at his side hints at generational promise.  In 1850, The Wood-Boat represented the promise of the not yet thirty-year-old state of Missouri.

Posthumous Portrait of Dred Scott
Louis Schultze, 1882, Missouri History Museum, St. Louis

Louis Schultze’s Posthumous Portrait of Dred Scott at the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis honors an integral figure of the antislavery movement.

Scott was the subject of the infamous Supreme Court ruling of March 6, 1857, when Chief Justice Roger Taney declared that enslaved African Americans were property devoid of citizenship, even when they resided in free states. On May 26, 1857, Scott’s supporters arranged for the family to be legally freed. John H. Fitzgibbon took his photograph the same year. Sadly, Scott passed away just over a year later on September 17, 1858.

The portrait by Schultze (1820–1901) is based on the Fitzgibbon photograph. Newspaper reports from 1882 indicate that the portrait was donated to the Missouri Historical Society in April of that year. St. Louisan J. Milton Turner, the first African American to serve in the US diplomatic corps under President Ulysses S. Grant, spoke at the public presentation of the picture. His presence at the ceremony evinces a recognition by the institution of the contributions African Americans had made to Missouri’s history. According to newspaper reports, the Dred Scott portrait was hung next to that of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, its placement further honoring the civil rights pioneer.

Votes For Women
Rose O’Neill, 1915, Bonniebrook Gallery, Museum, and Homestead, near Branson


Votes For Women
 at the Bonniebrook Gallery, Museum, and Homestead near Branson is one of the many original artworks by Rose O’Neill (1874–1944) housed at the site of the artist’s former home. In 1909, the artist and illustrator introduced the world to the “kewpies,” naked, impish, sexually ambiguous cherubs. Always cheerful and optimistic, the kewpies first appeared in the regularly occurring page-size comic Kewpieville published in Ladies’ Home Journal. The fanciful characters appealed to the tastes of the age, charming first the nation and then the world. In the decades to come, a global demand arose for kewpie books, dolls, merchandise, and endorsements, making O’Neill a very wealthy woman.

In the patriarchal world of the early twentieth century, O’Neill was a female pioneer. As a self-made entrepreneur, illustrator, professional artist, and published author, her work extended far beyond Kewpieville. O’Neill was active in the women’s suffrage movement and created kewpie imagery to promote women’s rights. Much of her artwork was created for a female audience, and although she sometimes reinforced traditional gender roles, she also subverted them. Indeed, the gender-fluid kewpies were more than cutesy figures. O’Neill’s Kewpieville comics contained complex illustrated stories that subtly promoted her altruistic and progressive values.

Although prosperous in the first three decades of the twentieth century, O’Neill was neither a miser nor a shrewd money manager. By the Great Depression, she found herself in financial difficulties. In 1937, she retired to Bonniebrook, her family’s estate a few miles north of Branson, where she lived and worked until her death. Her groundbreaking life has since inspired women artists around the world to overcome sexism in pursuit of creative careers.

Design for Missouri Centennial Poster
Vinnorma Shaw, circa 1921, The State Historical Society of Missouri Art Gallery, Columbia

This brightly colored painting from the art collection of the State Historical Society of Missouri was designed as a poster for Missouri’s centennial in 1921. Designed by Kansas-born artist Vinnorma Shaw (1890–1949), the composition is dominated by a classically dressed, blonde, fair-skinned woman identified as “Missouri” by the text on her crown.

In front of this allegorical personification are two figures seen from behind: a seated Native American man in an orange robe and a buckskin-clad frontiersman. The woman symbolizing Missouri appears to be showing these figures a cloud-swept vision of Missouri’s past and present. We see the white dome of Missouri’s new capitol building, erected in 1917, as well as the colorful pavilions and flags of the 1921 Missouri Centennial Exposition and State Fair, which the text below states will take place in Sedalia on August 8–20. In front of the twentieth-century architecture, we see visualizations of Missouri’s past as well.

In 1921, this imagery would have encouraged viewers to think about how Missouri had changed in the one hundred years between 1821 and the centennial. The figures from prestatehood days are presented with a vision of progress, as the domed edifice of the state’s capitol embodies the state’s growth.

Despite the graphic beauty of Shaw’s design, the imagery (likely commissioned by others) reflects an outdated conception of Missouri and its history. Today, the Greco-Roman figure of Missouri seems an odd personification of a multiethnic state, and the implication that colonialism led to progress in the first one hundred years of statehood ignores the difficulties faced by the indigenous people and African Americans of the state. Indeed, despite having made major contributions to the growth of Missouri’s culture and economy, no Missourians of African descent are pictured on the poster.

The Social History of Missouri
Thomas Hart Benton, 1936, Missouri State Capitol, Jefferson City


In 1936, Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975) finished his monumental mural The Social History of Missouri for the House Lounge of the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City. This spectacularly ambitious painting presents a fluid and dynamic historical continuum that wraps around the large room. Unlike the decorative murals installed in the capitol in the 1920s, Benton’s painting did not represent lofty allegorical concepts, idealized images of progress, or exciting scenes of military victories. Instead, the artist presented a complex vision of Missouri’s history that included unsavory depictions of slavery, the persecution of the Mormons, poverty, and more.

Benton organized his mural into three “historical epics,” each occupying a wall. Particularly groundbreaking was the south wall representing St. Louis and Kansas City in the modern era. Missouri’s Everyman became its heroes, as two muscular laborers, a white brewer, and a black slaughterhouse worker frame the doorway. Behind and beside them are garment workers, burlesque dancers, chemists, office workers, school kids, and politicians. Yet within this dynamic economy, we also see Depression-era poverty and systematic racism. Jobless white men warm themselves by a can fire, a black woman scavenges for coal at a railway station, and a segregated white audience enjoys the music of a black jazz band. Finally, over the doorway, a black woman shoots her abusive unfaithful lover in a scene from the song “Frankie and Johnny.” Written at the turn of the century as “Frankie and Albert” by the black songwriter Bill Dooley, the popular song describes a St. Louis murder that took place in 1899. By celebrating music by an African American artist, Benton suggests that in the Jazz Age, Missouri’s most important cultural contributions came from its black community.

Portrait of the Truman Family
Greta Kempton, 1952, The State Historical Society of Missouri Art Gallery, Columbia

Austrian-born portraitist Greta Kempton (1901–1991) gained fame painting the elite of Washington, DC, in the late 1940s and 1950s. Known for wearing stylish fashions while at the easel, Kempton painted multiple portraits of President Harry S. Truman and members of his family. The 1952 triple portrait of Truman with his wife and daughter in the State Historical Society of Missouri’s Art Gallery is the most ambitious of these pictures.

The portrait, three years in the making, was commissioned for SHSMO in 1949 after Truman’s victory in the 1948 election. Kempton created an optimistic postwar image by representing Missouri’s only president with his family. Seated outside, the group is backed by sky and encircled by verdant foliage. The president reads a newspaper that connects him with current events and the wider world, while his wife Bess holds a bouquet of daisies and appears lost in her thoughts. The daisies connect Bess to her daughter Margaret (marguerite is French for daisy), who poses behind her mother in a stylish red, white, and blue ensemble. The youthful Margaret can be seen as a hopeful representative of America’s future, looking out at the viewer with a direct and friendly gaze.

Large Stack
Donald Judd, 1968, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City
Nelson Atkins Museum of Art: Jamison Miller

It is easy to overlook how Donald Judd’s 1968 sculpture Large Stack at Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art reflects aspects of Missouri’s twentieth-century history. Judd (1928–1994) was born in Excelsior Springs, and he spent his formative years in Kansas City and other midwestern towns. A prolific writer and art critic, Judd later wrote that his youthful experiences led him to value the practical objects and architecture of twentieth-century American agriculture and industry—from grain elevators and steel barns to warehouses and superhighways.

 For Judd, such utilitarian forms represented the building blocks of Cold War America. The ten identical rectilinear solids of Large Stack are made from industrial steel and plexiglass. Stacked at regular intervals to form a ladder-like assemblage, the sculpture recalls the mundane elegance of 1960s industrial design. Judd demystifies art, which often privileges the intricate and unusual over the regular and common. The artist likely hoped Missouri visitors to the Nelson-Atkins would intuitively associate Large Stack with the familiar commercial and agrarian fixtures that they encountered in their everyday lives.