Sunday, August 28, 2016

Protecting the Newcomers - West Point in New York by Seth Eastman 1808-1875


During the late 18C & through much of the 19C, army forts were constructed throughout the United States to defend the growing nation from a variety of threats, both perceived & real, both external & internal. Internal threats included those from the Native Americans who had been on the land for enons.

Seth Eastman (American artist, 1808-1875) West Point, New York

West Point, New York

Neither signed nor dated by the artist, this is the painting Seth Eastman was completing when he died in 1875. The painting is unique in the series because the fort is not seen except at its perimeter gun placement. Instead, the viewer stands just above this small proscenium and looks out at a scene of the Hudson River. The setting was familiar to 19th-century Americans from the large number of paintings and prints of it already existing. West Point was not an active fort at this time. In 1802, after its crucial Revolutionary War role in preventing a British advance down the river to New York City, West Point became a military academy under the patronage of President Thomas Jefferson.

Even before the Civil War, West Point had become a tourist destination because of its fame, its proximity to New York City, and its picturesque location. In the painting, a woman, escorted by a cadet, tours the grounds. This work, alone among the fort paintings, shows some military activity–-the cadets are learning to prepare a cannon for firing. An officer-instructor stands second from the left; two boys ram the charge home in the large cannon’s barrel. Two smaller pieces of ordnance are also shown. But it is the Hudson River, its high banks framing the water where pleasure boats cruise, that draws the eyes away from the busy foreground and into the serene distance.

From the office of the United States Senate curatorwe learn that in 1870, the House Committee on Military Affairs commissioned artist Seth Eastman 17 to paint images of important fortifications in the United States. He completed the works between 1870 & amp; 1875. 

Born in 1808 in Brunswick, Maine, Eastman found expression for his artistic skills in a military career. After graduating from the US Military Academy at West Point, where officers-in-training were taught basic drawing & amp; drafting techniques, Eastman was posted to forts in Wisconsin & amp; Minnesota before returning to West Point as assistant teacher of drawing. 

While at Fort Snelling, Eastman married Wakaninajinwin (Stands Sacred), the 15-year-old daughter of Cloud Man, Dakota chief. Eastman left in 1832 for another military assignment soon after the birth of Their baby girl, Winona, & declared His marriage ended When He left. Winona was also known as Mary Nancy Eastman & was the mother of Charles Alexander Eastman, author of Indian Boyhood.

From 1833 to 1840, Eastman taught drawing at West Point. In 1835, he married his 2nd wife & was reassigned to Fort Snelling as a military commander & remained there with Mary & their 5 children for the next 7 years. During this time Eastman began recording the everyday way of life of the Dakota & the Ojibwa people. Eastman established himself as an accomplished landscape painter. Between 1836 & amp; 1840, 17 of his oils were exhibited at the National Academy of Design in New York City. 

Transferred to posts in Florida, & amp; Texas in the 1840s, Eastman became interesed in the Native Americans & made sketches of the people. This experience prepared him for the next 5 yeas in Washington, DC, where he was assigned to the commissioner of Indian Affairs & illustrated Henry Rowe Schoolcraft's important 6-volume Historical & amp; Statistical Information Respecting the History, Condition, & Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States. 

In 1867 Eastman returned to the Capitol, this time to paint a series of scenes of Native American life for the House Committee on Indian Affairs. Of his 17 paintings of forts, 8 are located in the Senate, while the others are displayed on the House side of the Capitol. Eastman was working on the painting West Point when he died in 1875.


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