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Seth Eastman

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Biography

Seth Eastman did not attend the United States Military Academy to study art, but the happiest result of his years there was the development of his notable talent for delineation. He was a devoted and competent soldier all his life, but from our point of view today, he was a competent and devoted painter as well. The very nature of his training at the Academy was a special benefit, for through it he became a realistic painter, not a romantic one. Trained as a topographical draftsman, he learned to draw and paint what he saw. He was not concerned with expressing himself, with emotional response, with interpreting his subjects. His purpose was to record accurately what was before him. The picturesque, the strange, the novel were not for him: his business was with the ordinary, the actual, the scenes and occurrences of the daily world. He chose to concentrate his skill on Indian life and he became the most effective pictorial historian of the Indian in the nineteenth century.

Eastman’s devotion of his artist-life to the study of the Indian was not an accident. He began as a landscapist, studied under Charles Robert Leslie and Robert W. Weir, and soon earned recognition as a minor painter of the Hudson River school. But before this, out on the western frontier in 1830, he had thought about producing an Indian gallery. The fortune of assignment to duty in Florida brought him into contact with the Seminoles, and assignment to Fort Snelling at the head of navigation on the Mississippi placed him for seven years among the Sioux, with the Chippewas as northern neighbors. This long isolation gave him unhurried opportunity for close study of the Indian, time to observe him threatening war, riding out on the hunt, and living quietly at home in his village. Aware that the Indian was fast disappearing, Eastman took upon himself the task of preserving the northern tribes visually.

To this end he made hundreds of studies in pencil and watercolor. He sketched Indians chasing buffalo in summer and in winter, hunting fish with spear and with bow and arrow, gathering wild rice, protecting the cornfields from vermin and from spirits, preparing skins for lodges and clothes. The ceremonial dances were there too-the sun dance, the medicine dance, the scalp dance, the dog dance-not because they were wild and picturesque, but because they were typical and normal. All these he drew and painted objectively. He was under no necessity to cater to popular taste. He developed no theory, was restricted by no theses. He gave his time to close study of the history and manners of the Indian people and to unprejudiced delineation of them.

The seven years at Fort Snelling were notably productive. Military affairs at the northern outpost left Eastman sufficient leisure to indulge his passion for painting Seventy-five or more oils, scores and scores of studies-his collection in 1846 numbered four hundred pictures-made a set of pictorial documents unequaled by the work of any of his contemporaries, and made him the inevitable choice for illustrator of Schoolcraft’s monumental works on the Indian tribes of the United States.

An excellent draftsman and an able painter, Eastman was not limited to his Indian subjects. His many effective sketches and paintings of views in the Hudson Valley, in Florida, in Minnesota, along the length of the Mississippi, in Texas, in Virginia, in New England, in Washington-forts and military actions, mountain and prairies landscapes, glimpses of towns, riverscapes-earn him a special places as a recorder of the American scene. But he remains above all a master painter of the Indian. 

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