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Erastus Salisbury Field

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Erastus Salisbury Field
(Leverett, Massachusetts, 1805 - 1900, Sunderland, Massachusetts)

Erastus Salisbury Field’s career spanned nearly seven decades and approximately four hundred paintings have been attributed to him. He was an itinerant painter, meaning that he traveled from town to town, serving mostly wealthy rural patrons. The details of Field’s career are sketchy at best, and because he was an itinerant painter, it is difficult to determine exactly where the artist painted when. However, scholars do know he traveled and painted in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York State.

Field was born in May 1805 in Leverett, Massachusetts. He had a twin sister Salome—the twins were two of nine children. When he was a child, Field sketched portraits of his relatives, and his parents encouraged the young artist by providing him with paints and scraps of board with which to experiment. Field began painting professionally in the early to mid-1820s, and in 1824, the artist traveled to New York City in order to study with Samuel B. Morse (1791-1872). (1) It was around this time that Morse was commissioned to paint the portrait of the French general Lafayette. Field was in New York for just three months before Morse’s young wife died in February 1825, and Field apparently returned to Leverett. Because Morse had been occupied creating preparatory studies for the Lafayette portrait, Field received little supervision and training and returned to Massachusetts with at most a general idea of Morse’s style. (2)

No works earlier than 1824 survive, and Field was most likely influenced by local itinerants who produced paintings in a formulaic style. Field lacked an understanding of anatomy, and his figures did not appear natural. The artist also had trouble with foreshortening, which contributed to a sense of disproportion in his figures. For example, in his portrait of Lauriette Ashley (1828, The Saint Louis Art Museum), the sitter’s right arm is tucked behind the torso, as opposed to on the armrest of the chair or resting in her lap. It appears as if she has lost her arm, not as if she is holding it behind her back. In many cases Field’s ultimate solution was to paint busts and leave the hands out.

Field was capable, however, when it came to the details of setting and of costume. He took great care in recreating laces, ribbons, bonnets, carpet design and other furnishings. In some works the decoration is so elaborate, that it looks like the figures are interrupting an inventory of their possessions. One of the artist’s best know works is Joseph B. Moore and Family (c. 1839, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). The Moores and their four children sit and stand in a formal room. The carpet is richly decorated in yellow, red, and green Oriental design. A red marble table marks the middle of the painting with Mr. and Mrs. Moore on either side. A matching empty marble frame is above the table and flanked by shuttered windows. Each of the figures is dressed in their Sunday best—Mrs. Moore wears a black dress with a very large, elaborately detailed lace collar.

For seventeen years, Field traveled through Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York painting portraits. The Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts’ "Portrait of Bartlett Doten" and "Portrait of Augusta Mason Doten" (1833-34) date from this period. In 1841, the artist abandoned his itinerant lifestyle and returned to New York City, where he remained for the next seven years.

The period in New York was a time of dramatic change for Field both stylistically and in terms of subject matter. It is likely that he was aware of general changes in American art and the changes could be partly due to this new awareness. By the mid-nineteenth century, landscape and history painting were becoming popular genres of American art, and Field tried his hand at both. More critical to his change was the relationship he developed with Abram Bogardus, a daguerreotypist. As writer John Vlach observed, “Field probably felt that by learning the new technology of likeness making, he was following a correct and progressive path.” (3)

In 1848, Field returned to Massachusetts, and continued to paint portraits. However, the artist had now begun to take photographs of his sitters and paint from the photograph instead of from life. And sometimes, Field produced likenesses that were photos colored with oil.

In 1859, Field and his daughter Henrietta moved to Plumtrees, Massachusetts after the death of his wife.(4) The artist purchased land near his house, dug a hole into the hillside, and constructed a two-room studio. According to Field’s biographer, Mary Black, Field compensated for his lack of material goods by painting big, exotic pictures of great buildings in foreign lands. Eventually, the walls of the studio became lines with paintings from floor to ceiling, all of them landscape or subject pieces on religious or historical themes.(5)

In the mid-1860s, the artist began to paint his best-known work, "Historical Monument of the American Republic" (Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts). The painting is an enormous canvas, measuring nine by thirteen feet. It is comprised of ten towers that narrated the history of the Republic from settlement to after the Civil War. Many of the scenes refer to Lincoln and the War, reflecting Field’s strong anti-slavery stance.(6)

Between 1865 and 1880, Field executed a series of paintings illustrating the Plagues of Egypt. The series was intended as decoration for the walls of the North Amherst Church. The nine surviving examples are only part of the original series. (7) About 1885, Field painted a panorama eighty-feet long of an imaginary trip around the world. He included several Massachusetts locations, such as the State House, the Bunker Hill Monument, and Fort Warren. After a tour of the world, Field returned by way of the American far West and Niagara Falls to end his panorama at the railroad terminal in Boston. The panorama was used to entertain neighbors and friends. It was rolled up on two spindles; the painting was unwound piece by piece by the artists as he gave an account of the world’s wonders. (8)

In the last decade of his life, Field was remembered as a shy, quiet, unassuming man, close to his family, and close to God. According to Black, his many interests kept him young for his years, and his independence kept him active. Field witnessed a century of progress throughout his life—his great grand-nieces and nephews came to see him on bicycles instead of horses; he may have seen an automobile, as Ford’s first was completed in 1893. (9) Field died in 1900 at the age of ninety-five.

(1) Morse was a sculptor, figure and portrait painter, and inventor who had studied art with Washington Allston and Benjamin West. He was one of the founders of hte National Academy of Design and perfected the telegraph as the inventor of the Morse Code.
(2) Mary Black, Erastus Salisbury Field: 1805-1900 (Springfield, MA: Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts, 1984): 11.
(3) John Vlach, Plain Painters: Making Sense of American Folk Art (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988): 22.
(4) Field married Phoebe Gilmur in 1831.
(5) Black:38.
(6) Field worked on the painting in several stages. Most of the work was completed by 1867. He added references to the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876, and he painted two end towers on each side in 1888. The artist provided a description and interpretation of each tower and bas-relief in his Descriptive Catalogue of the Monument of the American Republic published in Amherst in 1876.
(7) The missing subjects include the Plagues of Frogs, Lice, Boils, Murrains, Biles and Blains. For more on the series, see Black: 48-50.
(8) Unfortunately, the panorama does not survive. See Black: 52.
(9) Black: 56.

Clair Robertson (ed. ML) August 2004

Image credit: Erastus Salisbury Field, Daguerreotype of artist Erastus Salisbury Field, 1840s, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, (c) PD-US-expired

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