Erastus Salisbury Field


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Painter. After first concentrating on portraits, in the 1840s he began to picture religious and historical subjects, which became his specialty in the mid-1860s. His masterpiece, the 9 × 13-foot Historical Monument of the American Republic (Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts, 1867–88) presents a synoptic view of the nation's history from its founding through the post–Civil War years. More than 130 simulated reliefs adorning ten fanciful towers recount American history from its earliest times as a colony through the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876. Conceived in mystical, rather than documentary terms, the work treats the American experience as a struggle between iniquity and redemption, reflecting the beliefs of Field's Calvinist upbringing. Born in the central Massachusetts town of Leverett, Field grew up on a farm. In 1824 he went to New York, where he studied for a few months with Samuel F. B. Morse. After returning to Leverett the following year, he became an itinerant portrait painter, traveling throughout western Massachusetts, as well as into Connecticut and New York State. Despite contact with sophisticated models in Morse's studio, Field practiced a style closer to that of country painters such as Ammi Phillips, whose working territory overlapped his own. Emphasizing simplified, flattened shapes and bold, patterned design, he nevertheless observed his clients with a sharp eye as he recorded their individual features. One of his finest portraits, Joseph Moore and His Family (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1839) presents parents and four children in an interior setting enlivened by a boldly patterned carpet. Stately, yet decorative, its arresting qualities overpower deficiencies in academic drawing and perspective. While in New York from 1841 until 1848, Field first tried his hand at literary subjects. There he also encountered the new technique of photography. When he returned to his native region, he added daguerreotypes to his repertoire as he moved from one small town to another. Usually he based his painted portraits on them, giving a somewhat photographic cast to these likenesses that rarely match the quality of his portraits from the 1830s. After 1859 he resided most of the time in the Leverett area. There, as the Civil War raged, the abolitionist Field turned inward, painting idiosyncratic works usually inspired by literary texts and illustrations. Among the considerable variety of topics he tackled, Old Testament subjects particularly revealed his obsessive fervor. Following the example of spectacular epics by English romantic artists such as John Martin, he filled his scenes with great crowds who enact historical destiny. The Historical Monument realizes a grandeur, complexity, and philosophical integration unparalleled among American nonacademic painters. Undertaken to celebrate the impending centennial of the nation, it was finished in 1876. However, in 1888, shortly before retiring from painting, Field added the towers near either edge. He died in Leverett.

Subjects: Art.

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