E. S. Field, 1805-1900


During 1984-85 the Smithsonian organized the first joint venture of the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of American Art, in an effort to combine the special viewpoints of the two institutions and give new resonance to the study of American art. The subject of this landmark exhibition was Erastus Salisbury Field, a so-called "primitive" painter from rural New England renowned both for his evocative portraits and his imaginative mythological, Biblical, and historical canvases. His is a remarkable and distinctly American story.

Erastus Salisbury Field and his twin sister, Salome, were born to Erastus and Salome Ashley Field on May 19, 1805 in Leverett, Massachusetts. During his long life Erastus was never to wander more than 200 miles away from this rural setting. Apart from a couple of journeys to New York and some travels in Connecticut, Field lived entirely in rural Massachusetts. He enjoyed the pleasures of a New England childhood--skating, sugaring-off, family parties with his many relatives--and attended grammar school, where he studied a great deal of history and learned to read the Bible. Raised a strict Congregationalist among the spiritual heirs of Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening of the 18th century, Field learned at a very young age to value scripture. Its influence is evident in many of his paintings, especially in the didactic essay at the base of The Historical Monument of the American Republic and in the Biblical scenes he painted later in his career. As a boy, Field was given scraps of cardboard on which to try his hand at painting. Early demonstrations of ability led his parents to send him to New York to study with Samuel F. B. Morse, at the time a well-known portraitist, from whom Field absorbed urban influences and acquired a knowledge of academic models. During General Lafayette's widely heralded 1824 visit to the United States, Morse won the prized commission of painting the hero's portrait for the city of New York. Field met Lafayette in Morse's studio and long remembered the occasion, later commemorating the general's visit in a panel of the Monument.

Field's formal training came to an abrupt end, though, when Morse's young wife died in 1825. Field returned to the farm in Leverett and painted the first of his known works, a portrait of his grandmother, Elizabeth Billings Ashley. For the next fifteen years, Field traversed the Connecticut River Valley and practiced his talent of portraiture. He married Phoebe Gilmer in 1831, and their only child, Henrietta, was born the next year. His work during this period is bold and dramatic, transforming rural Yankee farmers and their wives into provincial royalty. As Field's skill in portraiture increased, however, the influence of painters like Thomas Cole was establishing landscape painting as the rapidly gathering mainstream of mid-century American art. Yet despite his vividly pastoral surroundings, Field concentrated on portraits--not because of his lack of exposure to art-world currents, but because he could make a living rendering the likenesses of his neighbors.

In 1838 Samuel Morse, Field's previous instructor, brought the daguerreotype from France to the United States. The advent of this new machine hurt the portrait painting business, as patrons clamored for the daguerreotype's astonishingly realistic (and cheaper) likenesses. Field's initial reaction to the daguerreotype was creative. Given the machine's limited range of focus, he emphasized the position of his subjects within a larger context--witness his Moore Family of 1839. What Field's portraits lacked in geometric perspective--his representations usually have the anatomy of playing-card figures--they compensated for in brightly colored costumes and prominently showcased possessions. Despite all the impossibly short waists, narrow shoulders, and too-long arms, Field managed a richly embellished product, one of the best likenesses in rural America. His clients were often members of the burgeoning rural bourgeoisie, those artisans and merchants who were enjoying the first fruits of commercialism brought about by the 19th-century market economy's transformation of the countryside. Field was one of numerous portrait painters who captured the rising prosperity of this class and helped--through a kind of oil-based ancestor worship--to forge its identity.

Field moved his family to New York in 1841, and after a year in Greenwich Village changed his listing in the city directory from "portrait painter" to "artist," an alteration which points to a growing interest in literary and historical subjects. Before long he had learned to operate the daguerreotype, perhaps from Samuel Morse or Mathew Brady. In 1848 he moved back to the country and attempted to manage his ailing father's farm. Field lacked a knowledge of farming, however, and after the death of his father in March of 1851, he moved his family to Palmer, Massachusetts. There he set up painting rooms in the upper floor of the Cross Block, using this studio to take daguerreotypes of clients. He then painted portraits based on the daguerreotypes, efforts which ended to be more realistic but less vital than his work in the 20s and 30s. His portraits of families during this period--the Brainerds, for example--look like composite collections of faces from photographs, a far cry from the integrated effort of the earlier Moore family.

In 1859, his wife Phoebe died, and Field took his daughter, Henrietta to live in Plumtrees, near Sunderland, Massachusetts. The Civil War followed not long after, and Field's strong views about slavery, governmental corruption, temperance, and religion informed his next three decades of work. Field turned to classical mythology and Biblical history for inspiration, painting numerous scriptural scenes such as the Plagues of Egypt and the Garden of Eden. Interestingly enough, Field--in what might have been a nod to Victorian prudery--had painted out both Eve and the Serpent in his original version of the garden, but both were reincorporated during the painting's restoration in the 20th century. Field also dealt with more directly American themes, as in the inimitable Lincoln with Washington and His Generals, a painting which speaks volumes about his notions of history and national development. But the culminating effort of Field's life is undoubtedly The Historical Monument of the American Republic, begun not long after the War ended. This patriotic architectural extravaganza reached a first stage of completion by March, 1867. In 1871, Congress authorized the coming of the Centennial Exposition to Philadelphia, and Field, hoping that his painting might be selected for exhibition in Philadelphia, decided to update the Monument with scenes from Andrew Johnson's presidency. He also crowned the whole with a vision of the Centennial itself, complete with aerial railway, flags, and a miniature Memorial Hall. The Monument was passed over by the Centennial selection committee, however, and ultimately Field's masterpiece appeared at the Exhibition only in the form of a small Edward Bierstadt albertype. Hoping perhaps to imitate the success of John Trumbull's lecture tour with the Capitol Rotunda murals in the 20s, Field had a Descriptive Catalog to the Monument printed in Amherst in 1876. But the hope for a national audience for his illustrated lecture and public mural were never realized in Field's lifetime. One can only imagine, however, the awe and astonishment of his provincial Plumtrees neighbors at viewing such a canvas as the Monument.

When President Garfield was assassinated in 1881, Field painted small commemorative portraits of Garfield to sell to neighbors. He increasingly kept to himself in the humble makeshift studio he had built for himself. Local legend has it that in 1900 Field traded his 80-feet long, 14-inch high panoramic painting of a journey around the world to a young girl in exchange for butter and eggs. This work has been lost, and perhaps even today there are paintings by Field lying around in the attics of Connecticut and Massachusetts, waiting to be brought to light. Increasingly eccentric, deaf, and solitary, but a dignified, churchgoing old Yankee to the last, Field passed away on June 28, 1900, after a life which had spanned almost the whole of the 19th century. His unparalleled legacy establishes him as perhaps the premiere figure in the 19th century American primitive tradition.

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