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.
Of Seth Eastman’s fort series, this is the only painting of an army post in the Southwest. Located at Canyon Bonito about seven miles north of Window Rock, Arizona, Fort Defiance was established in 1851 to create a military presence in Navajo Country. It was built on valuable grazing land that the federal government then prohibited the Navajo from using. As a result, the appropriately named fort experienced intense fighting, culminating in an unsuccessful 1860 attack by the Navajo. The next year, at the onset of the Civil War, the army abandoned Fort Defiance. Continued Navajo raids in the area led the army to send Kit Carson to impose order. His “solution” was brutal: thousands of starving Navajo were interned in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, and much of their livestock was destroyed. The Navajo Treaty of 1868 allowed those interned to return to a portion of their land, and Fort Defiance was reestablished as an Indian agency that year. It was during the development of the fort into an agency that Eastman depicted the site in his painting, but the evidence of the picture suggests that he never visited the post.
At the base of a butte, a small, rudimentary block of one-story log and sod buildings stands on a foreground plain. A dark gorge divides the butte, and a road emerges from it. In contrast to the lush, grassy grazing land that typified Fort Defiance, in the painting everything is barren and inhospitable. The land is the color of sandalwood, and there is little contrast in the sky. It is tempting to enumerate the buildings because they are the focus of the scene. Low barracks fill most of the small space, but one may discern kitchens, latrines, open tents, distant cattle, wagons, and about 30 human figures, including a group of soldiers drilling in the yard.
The scene is prosaic and matter-of-fact, and this is probably why it seems to embody the true sense of an outpost. Surprisingly, the feeling is similar to that captured by some 20th-century films–-the bleak setting of the Western genre, but without the Native American and army conflict. The decision to omit all battles from Eastman’s series of fort paintings explains this departure from the bitter reality of life at Fort Defiance.
From the office of the United States curator, we 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.