Raised in central Missouri, Bingham found the most enduring subjects of his art in the trappers and boatmen who populated his state’s great rivers, the Missouri and the Mississippi. Combining the elements of water, foliage, hazy morning light, river men, and their simple crafts, he created a sequence known as “The River Paintings.”
The Trappers’ Return is the second version of Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), which is generally considered the artist’s finest work in the genre idiom. Both pictures present a dugout canoe moving slowly downstream with an old French trader paddling in the stern and his son amidships with an animal chained to the bow. The arrangement of the figures and the general mood invest them with a sense of timelessness all the more striking for the specificity of the scenes depicted.