Seth Eastman


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Painter and draftsman. A career army officer, he specialized in painting American Indian life but also produced many landscapes. He accomplished much of his finest work in territorial Minnesota, where he was stationed during the 1840s. Later he served as principal illustrator for Henry Rowe Schoolcraft's government-sponsored, six-volume Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History, Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States (1851–57), a landmark of early anthropology. Eastman was born in Brunswick, Maine. In 1824 he entered the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Trained there as a topographical draftsman, following graduation he was assigned to work in this specialty, mostly in the upper Midwest. After he returned in 1833 to teach drawing at West Point, Robert W. Weir aided his development as an artist. From 1841 until 1848 Eastman served at Fort Snelling, in what is now Minnesota. There he undertook a sustained inquiry into indigenous peoples' culture, customs, and language. In addition to painting many direct studies of Indian life, he also recorded the landscape of the upper Mississippi region and, later, other areas of the country where he was stationed. His numerous small drawings and watercolors, many apparently done directly from nature, convey specific landscape features, atmosphere, and light with appealing freshness. Suggesting human harmony with nature, these often include Indians or frontiersmen in characteristic activities. Some of his more ambitious oils, such as the carefully composed Lacrosse Playing Among the Sioux Indians (Corcoran Gallery, 1851) include informative details about tribal life, but they lack the immediacy of his directly observed studies and sometimes employ violence or sentimentality to accentuate the American Indians' exoticism. After he left Minnesota, Eastman served in Texas for a year before arriving in Washington, D.C., to work on the Schoolcraft project. Washington remained his permanent residence, although between 1855 and 1867 he served for relatively brief periods in many locations throughout the country. Subsequently he painted many western scenes on commission from Congress to adorn committee rooms in the U.S. Capitol. While he was at West Point, the academy published his Treatise on Topographical Drawing (1837). Later, Eastman provided illustrations for several books by his wife, Mary Henderson Eastman, a writer of fiction and poetry as well as nonfiction. These include Dahcotah; or, Life and Legends of the Sioux Around Fort Snelling (1849), The American Aboriginal Portfolio (1853), and Chicora and Other Regions of the Conquerors and the Conquered (1854).

Subjects: Art.

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