FIELD, ERASTUS SALISBURY
was a farmer and painter whose portraits of relatives and their acquaintances, executed from 1826 to 1841, are among the most sympathetic likenesses from the period, while his history paintings of about 1844 to 1885 are visionary and often unprecedented in subject matter. Field studied with Samuel F.B.Morse (1791–1872)in New York City in 1824–1825 before setting off on a series of portrait painting trips throughout western Massachusetts and nearby communities in Connecticut, NewYork, and Rhode Island. His first documented work, of his eighty-year-old grandmother, Elizabeth Billings Ashley, was painted about 1825 in Leverett,Massachusetts, Field’s birthplace. Broad brush strokes give volume to the woman’s head and face while smoothing out the texture of her skin. The alert, dark eyes,looking straight ahead, are emphasized. The three-dimensional appearance of the figure is countered by two-dimensional schematic patterns of a white collar and cap. A dappled gray background, light-filled near Mrs. Ashley’s head,darkens toward the edges of the canvas. The only bright color is the red upholstery of a chair back, partially seen from behind the sitter’s shoulder. Thesecharacteristics, learned partly from Morse, and partly from the country tradition Field already knew, are conspicuous in other early portraits by Field.By about 1841, after working for a long line of patrons, Field moved to New York City, where he stayed for seven years and painted his earliest history subjects.He returned to Massachusetts to work as a daguerreotypist and painted portraits from photographs that he took. By 1866 he retired to Plumtrees, a small communitynear Leverett, where he produced a series of biblical and historical paintings based on prints and his own naive visions, such as
The Garden of Eden,
painted about1865. During the Civil War, Field began what would be a masterpiece of the nineteenth century, a twenty-two-foot canvas called
The Historical Monument of the American Republic
(completed 1888), which shows ten towers carved with relief sculptures illustrating the history of the United States. Field was unable to arrange asuitable public showing of this ambitious painting. During his lifetime, it remained in his barn, where he used it to illustrate history lessons for local school children. Todayit is displayed in the Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Painting, American Folk; Religious Folk Art
Erastmus Salisbury Field: 1805–1900.
Springfield, Mass., 1984.Carson, Jenny, and Paul Staiti.
Selections from the American Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts and the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum.
FIELD, ERASTUS SALISBURY