Educator, muralist, and magazine illustrator, Julien Binford III became a vigorous representational painter after an early period experimenting with abstraction. A descendant of an established Virginia family, he spent most of his career in his native state. In 1935 he acquired an abandoned early nineteenth-century musket factory in rural Powhatan, forty miles west of Richmond, developing it into an idyllic retreat and studio where he could undertake large scale paintings.

Binford was born at Norwood Plantation in Powhatan County (although some sources say Richmond) and after his early childhood there, he moved to Atlanta. He attended Emory University, where he focused on pre-med courses for two years. When the director of the Atlanta High Museum saw his drawings of dissections, he suggested Binford pursue art. Joining the civilian United States Merchant Marine for a time, he then resumed his studies at the Art Institute of Chicago where he studied for three years. In 1932 he was awarded an Edward L. Ryerson Traveling Fellowship of $2500 and spent four years in Paris and traveling through Europe, and examples of his work were exhibited at Parisian galleries.   

Back in Powhatan in 1935, Binford worked on restoring the old musket factory and enjoyed some success exhibiting his work. A major turning point came in 1940 when the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts selected him for a one-man exhibition. During this period the museum was notable for its alternating series of exhibitions: one year a national biennial of contemporary artists, the next year Virginia artists. Binford captured the first Senior Fellowship awarded by the museum, where the award committee included Theresa Pollack, head of the art school. With the backing of the fellowship he conducted a class for black artists at the Craig House Art Center where Leslie Bolling taught carving . Binford also initiated a course in mural painting at the Richmond School of Art.  The museum’s director, Thomas C. Colt, Jr. stated “Color is Binford’s first concern, and his color is lovely and glowing. Color he places on structurally sound form.”

Binford’s paintings were shown at many of the prestigious venues of the day: Midtown Galleries in New York, the Corcoran Gallery, Washington, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Art Institute of Chicago, where he received the annual art award for his painting, The Crap Shooter. It portrays black members of Binford’s Powhatan community—a preacher, a mail carrier and a gravedigger. Based on a real event, the painting was illustrated in a Life magazine article in 1941 which described how the artist, while shooting rabbits along a creek near his home, came upon the illegal game, joined the men, and proceeded to lose seven dollars. Shortly afterward he used the same models in his River Jordan mural for the Shiloh Baptist Church in Powhatan. At Binford’s suggestion, the congregation paid him in produce—two pick-up truck loads of chickens, corn, potatoes, and beets.  This mural and the tale of its creation appeared in Life on November 16, 1942.

Shortly before painting the Shiloh church mural in 1941, Binford had successfully completed a mural for the post office in Forest, Mississippi under the auspices of the United States Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts, a New Deal program. Once again his figures were black men, this time four lumber workers who, along with a mule, struggle to move large tree trunks in a dense forest. Another Federal Art Project post office commission for the Saunders Station post office in Richmond became controversial and was never completed. The subject assigned was the burning of Richmond at the end of the Civil War—a low moment for the city and the Confederacy. His interpretation was hardly flattering, showing looters, chaos, confusion, nudity, and a large horse trampling people.

In 1943 Binford earned a Rosenwald Fellowship and subsequently became an artist-correspondent for Life magazine from 1944 to 1946, where he spent an entire year painting wartime life of the Port of New York. The November 1944 of Life featured reproductions of sixteen of his paintings, including an aerial view of New York harbor. Several years later, also in New York, he completed two mural commissions for branches of the Greenwich Savings Bank in 1949 and 1954. A Memory of 14th Street and 6th Avenue portrayed elegantly dressed figures and horses and carriages as they would have looked fifty years before. Binford’s mural, The Enactment of the Virginia Declaration of Rights for the Virginia State Library was painted in 1951.

Beginning in 1946 Binford was a Professor of Art at Mary Washington College of the University of Virginia in Fredericksburg (now the University of Mary Washington). At the time of his retirement in 1971 he was honored by a retrospective exhibition of sixty-five pieces in various mediums which was organized by students in a course titled Connoisseurship, Research, and Gallery Work. In the accompanying brochure Binford stated: “We should not want it to be forgotten that the symbols of a painter are not those of a statesman, a scholar, a philosopher, or a poet.  His symbols are not words, but colors.”