Sunday, April 22, 2012

Visionary Erastus Salisbury Field

Erastus Salisbury Field (1805-1900) was an itinerant portrait painter who also painted mythical landscapes that far overshadowed his early work.

In the winter of 1824-1825, Field traveled to New York City and studied art under Samuel F. B. Morse, credited not only with inventing the Morse Code, but also with introducing photography to the United States.   |
Morse, above, was an artist of stature, and his portrait of President James Monroe today hangs in the White House. One wonders about Field's short stay with Morse. Did he run out of funds? Was he discouraged? What we do know is that Field returned to his rural home of Leverett, Massachusetts and began a career as an itinerant artist in a rather isolated area.
Field's first known painting is a portrait of his grandmother, Elizabeth Billings Ashley. Many of his sitters were friends and a very extended family.

Joseph Moore and His Family   |

click to enlarge   |   titles and credits below
What we can see from Field's portraits is that they were very formulaic. In fact, the greatest difference in the three portraits above is the scenery beyond the red curtains. Most itinerant artists of the period — or limners — would paint canvases with generic bodies during the winter months, then simply add a client's face at a later time. I've read that Field was different in that he painted faces first, and would add all the rest later. In any event, he was unable to make a living as an artist because, ironically, his teacher had introduced the country to the daguerreotype. Having an exact likeness on a small plate supplanted the work of many lesser portrait painters.
Field continued to paint, however, and turned his attention to Biblical themes. Above is one of several versions of the Garden of Eden. Below is He Turned Their Waters Into Blood, one of a series of paintings depicting "The Plagues of Egypt." Field apparently enjoyed painting architecture, and architectural elements appear more and more in his later paintings.

Masters of Naive Art   |   Bihalji-Merin
Field's most famous painting is in every way monumental. From 1867 to 1888, Field worked on The Historical Monument of the American Republic, below, a canvas that measures 9'3" x 13'1". 

click to enlarge   |   Masters of Naive Art   |   Bihalji-Merin
Comprised originally of eight towers, with two more added later, the painting chronicles American history from Jamestown to 19th century events. Field conceived the monument to celebrate the 1876 Centennial, but continued working on the towers into his old age. Each tower has faceted panels depicting important scenes in low relief sculpture. I've read that Field enjoyed sharing his work with neighborhood children, providing them entertainment that must have been somewhere between a history lesson and a travelogue.

Erastus Salisbury Field died at age 95, in 1900.

The three portraits at the beginning of this post are, from left to right:
Clarissa Gallond Cook, 1838-1839,
Julia Ann Adams Peck, 1843,
Lauriette Adams Peck, probably 1843,


  1. Dear Jane and Lance:

    Somehow I lost your comment in my blog but was able to copy it from e-mail. From Jane and Lance Hattatt:

    Hello Mark:
    What an intriguing account you give here of Field's work, an artist completely unknown to us. We agree that the biblical scenes have much greater interest and the attention to detail shown in them is quite extraordinary.

    And, the 'Historical Monument of the American Republic' is indeed a majestic piece. We can well imagine children being transfixed by Field's account of the historical links to the work, and seeing how they have been translated into paint on canvas.

    1. Hello, Jane and Lance:

      I also like the image of the 95-year-old Field sharing with children. I'm sure it made quite an impression that lasted through their lives. And if one does the math, those children lived into the latter half of the 20th century with personal stories that almost stretched back into the 1700s!

  2. Hello Mark, At first the two styles seemed so different, then I started noticing some similarities. The allegorical scenes display the same type of naive, folk-art charm as in the portraits, and as opposed to such refined paintings as Thomas Cole's The Architect's Dream.

    On the other hand, the portrait of his grandmother exhibits a certain surreal distortion; the oddly prominent nose is even more emphasized by the rapidly receding hollow cheeks, giving a sort of fun-house mirror effect.

    Thank you for a very entertaining and instructive post.

    --Road to Parnassus

  3. Hello, Parnassus - It's interesting that you mention Thomas Cole's "The Architect's Dream" because art historians believe that Field was familiar with it and inspired by it.

    I also zeroed in on the the grandmother's nose (which is wonderfully modeled), and those hollow cheeks. Doubtlessy Erastus mirrored that look himself by 1900.

    As often happens when a naive artist gets training, Erastus Salisbury Field relied on photographs for later portraits, and those later portraits lost the strength and charm of his earlier, simplified work.

  4. It's always interesting to see an artist's magnum opus. I'm assuming the massive tower painting was that to Field. It really is quite intriguing. To see it in person must be almost overwhelming.

    You know I think there's something in the old adage that people tend to look like their names. If ever a man looked like Erastus Salisbury Field, it's the chap in the top painting.

    Born in 1905. Think of all that was yet to be invented and that he lived to see or, at least, to hear about.

    An enlightening post, Mark. As usual. :)

    1. Hi, Yvette - He was born in 1805, the year Thomas Jefferson started his second term as President, and died in 1900, the year the first automobile show was held at Madison Square Garden. Field did indeed see a lot of change in his lifetime!

  5. One of my favorite paintings of his is that of Joseph Moore and his family, in the collection of the MFA Boston. Also on a large, near-life scale. Thank you for this post, as I knew relatively little about the artist. RD

    1. Hello, Reggie - The Joseph Moore Family, all in black and white and set against a colorful patterned carpet, is so appealing because of its very graphic qualities, don't you think? Thanks for mentioning that painting; I 'll add it to the posting!

  6. Dear Mark, How unusual, for the time, to have lived so long. Would like to think that being involved in the Arts had something to do with's wishing you a long and happy artist life. Gina

    1. Dear Gina - Thank you for that happy thought. Have you ever noticed that the life span for orchestra conductors seems to be so much longer? Clearly, we enjoy music down to the cellular level! I hope that's true for all the arts ...