Nearing the Issue at the Cockpit
Artist: Horace Bonham
Medium: Oil on canvas
Citation: Horace Bonham, Nearing the Issue at the Cockpit, 1870. Oil on canvas, 20 1/4 x 27 1/8 in. Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund 99.6.
Rights Holder: Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund 99.6.
Engage! Theme: Community
The diverse, often contentious community of the American electorate is the implied subject of Horace Bonham’s painting. Ostensibly picturing the cross-class bonding of men through sport, the image is said to be a political allegory inspired by the close presidential race in 1876 between Samuel Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes. At the time, intense political contests such as this were often compared to the brutal sport of cockfighting, which was widely outlawed in Bonham’s day.
His image focuses not on the bloody fight but on a motley group of spectators whose common excitement in its “issue” (outcome) transcends their obvious differences of race, social standing, and ethnic origin. Three well-to-do onlookers (including the artist himself as the top-hatted gentleman on the left) are on the periphery of the crowd of working-class men, who include recent immigrants from Europe and Asia as well as newly enfranchised African Americans.
Bonham included 13 individuals, a number that his contemporaries would have recognized as symbolic of the 13 original American colonies. Like the colonies, Bonham implies, the diverse American electorate must unite to function as one nation.
Contemporary observers note a “Photoshop” quality to some of the figures in the painting, probably the result of from the artist’s dependence on photographs. In fact, it is doubtful that Bonham could have induced such a diverse group of men to actually pose together. Painters of his day would have used models dressed as they liked, rather than “real” types, for such a composition; using photos of social types (real or costumed) was simply cheaper.
The diversity of the spectators reflects both contemporary debate over immigration (which had resulted in the first restrictive legislation, in 1870) and the recent ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, guaranteeing male residents the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” (Women, who would not win the right to vote for several decades, are absent from the picture.)
As a local newspaper publisher and an appointee to a post in the congressional district in his native York, Pennsylvania, Bonham was attentive to political issues. In the bit of exposed brick in the left background of his painting, he implies that the foundation of American democracy—the people—is solid if unpolished; the posted “Rules” in the right background suggest that the democratic electoral process is ultimately safeguarded by law and regulation.
What do you think has captured the attention of all these men? Have you seen a group so captivated before? How do you think the men feel about what they see?
Who are these guys? Other than looking at the same thing, what connects them as a group? What differentiates them?
These men are gathered to await the outcome of the contentious presidential election in 1876. At the time, the intense political campaigns were often compared to cockfighting, an outlawed sport. The sign on the wall marked “Rules” is a further reminder of the metaphor. What important political or social issues of our own time might cause diverse Americans to unite like this?
Further Discussion Questions and Activity Ideas:
Women are conspicuously missing from this image. In 1878, the Fifteenth Amendment had only recently been ratified (1870), giving all male citizens, including African Americans, the right to vote. Women continued to fight for this privilege, ultimately achieving the vote in 1920 (see the Suffrage parade image, part of the Participation theme). What rights are still being fought for today? Select an issue that you know about or that is important to you and your community; research the issue from both sides—for and against. Prepare and conduct a debate with others in the group, making sure to set rules for the debate, like the rules that govern the electoral process referenced in the painting.
Of Time and Place: American Figurative Art from the Corcoran Gallery (Washington, D.C: Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1981), p. 61 (descriptive interpretation of artwork with some information on the artist).
Ask Art biography of Horace Bonham (available online in full to non-subscribers on Fridays).