BY BTL STAFF
Lansing — Kinsley S. Bingham was Michigan’s first Republican governor. He spoke against slavery, championed education and signed the legislation establishing an agricultural college that came to be known as Michigan State University.
But all of that was academic to Joshua Risner when he set about reproducing a portrait of Bingham to hang at the state Capitol Building.
Risner, the Capitol’s decorative artist, felt affection for the man based on the Lewis Ives portrait from more than 150 years ago.
“I think it’s interesting how pleasant he looks,” Risner said. “He looks like a guy who would be easy to get along with. It seems like the artist was able to capture this guy in an abstract way, an essential way. There’s a kindness, a warmth that makes me think he was approachable.”
Capitol Historian Valerie Marvin had another word for it: “Grandfatherly.”
However you describe him, Bingham has joined the ranks of leaders hanging in the Capitol’s Gallery of Governors.
His likeness went up last week in a second-floor hallway of the Capitol’s west wing in front of the Speaker’s Library. The portrait was formally dedicated in a ceremony last week.
The Michigan State Capitol Commission hopes to have all of Michigan’s governors represented at the Capitol someday. Last year, 19th-century territorial governor George Bryan Porter joined the fold through donation.
Bingham is number 36; 11 are still missing.
“He was a remarkable man,” Marvin said. “He was one of the most respected 19th-century governors we had. I like that he has a strong personal connection with (the Lansing area). He grew up in a farming family in New York, learned law, served as a probate judge, a district attorney and was involved in politics for decades. He believed that agriculture education was very important. And he felt so strongly about the slavery issue. That really became his life’s work.”
The Lansing State Journal reports that Bingham was governor from 1855 to 1859. During the early to mid-1850s, he broke with fellow Democrats over the issue of slavery and joined with members of the Free Soilers, Free Democrats and Whigs to form the Republican Party.
Before becoming governor, Bingham was speaker of the state House for several years and served in the U.S. House. After his two terms as governor, Bingham represented Michigan in the U.S. Senate. He died in 1861.
The Ives portrait of Bingham was on exhibit at the Michigan Historical Commission. Risner used it as inspiration for a larger version. He also recreated the elaborate frame using three different types of wood.
“The frame is what drew me to the piece,” Marvin said. “When we went over to see those portraits the first time, I thought this was clearly one of the most elegant. I remember thinking, what do we do with a frame like this? I was both shocked and very impressed when Joshua said, ‘Let me try.’ We’re very fortunate to have him on our staff. He’s a very talented artist.”
The portraits, Marvin added, are an important part of the ambiance at the Capitol.
“The portraits can spark conversation,” she said. “They create an opportunity to educate people about these past leaders. They draw us in. They give us insight into who this person was, what their priorities were as governors. What did they accomplish? What, perhaps, did they fail to accomplish?
“Just seeing that face on the wall every day encourages me … to discover just who that person was, what made them tick?”
As for who might be next to join the Gallery of Governors, Marvin isn’t talking specifics.
“We’ve tossed around several ideas,” she said. “We’ll probably look at it again in the new year.”