Editor's note: The following essay, with Endnotes, is printed with permission of the Springfield Library and Museums Association. The essay was included in the 256 page illustrated 1999 catalogue titled Selections from the American Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts and the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, ISBN 0-916746-18-6, pp 68-70. In addition to the essay, the catalogue contains an image and provenance of the painting and an exhibition schedule. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in purchasing the catalogue, please contact the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

Erastus Salisbury Field, 1805-1900

Historical Monument of the American Republic, 1867-1888

(Oil on canvas, 9 feet 3 inches x 13 feet 1 inch, Museum of Fine Arts, The Morgan Wesson Memorial Collection, 60.16)

by Paul Staiti

 

Field's grand Historical Monument, painted in response to the Civil War and in anticipation of the nation's Centennial, encyclopedically charts America's early history. On more than 130 simulated relief panels set into ten painted towers, the 150-square-foot picture chronicles 250 years of American history, from Jamestown to the Centennial of 1876.

Prior to painting the Historical Monument, Field had worked primarily in portraiture in the vicinity of his home in Leverett in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts.[1] Though he had studied painting with Samuel F. B. Morse in New York in 1824 and 1825, Field continued to paint in a country style that was a less sophisticated version of his teacher's work. His portraits, with their flat compositions and blunt directness, were popular in rural towns and small cities along the Connecticut River Valley, from Greenfield and Northampton in the north to Hartford and New Haven in the south.[2]

Field's interest in historical architecture and subjects dated from his second residency in New York, from 1841 to 1848, when he painted his Embarkation of Ulysses (around 1844, Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Mass.), a picture that also contains a number of classical architectural towers. Field may also have been inspired toward history and architectural forms by Thomas Cole's The Architect's Dream (1840, Toledo Museum of Art), and by a contemporary English vogue for architectural pictures, such as Charles Robert Cockerell's The Professor's Dream (c. 1825, Royal Academy of Arts, London), which bears striking formal resemblance to Historical Monument. But it was not until the Civil War that Field turned nearly exclusively to history painting. At first he was interested in painting Old Testament stories about the tortured odyssey of the Jews; for example, he painted a series of at least ten pictures that were collectively called "The Plagues of Egypt" and were intended for installation in the North Amherst Congregational Church.

Historical Monument, which coincided in date with these biblical pictures, also chronicles the history of a people. At opposite ends of the long egyptianate base, the American narrative begins with images of Jamestown and Plymouth. It culminates at the top of the central tower, two and a half centuries later, in balloon-stack locomotives traveling on iron truss bridges to and from the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, which is encircled by dozens of angels waving American flags. The path from settlement to centennial is not an easy one, however. Instead, it is a tortured route in which the narrative becomes ruptured and the events depicted tell a harrowing tale. Field repeatedly pictures scenes of tragedy, chaos, invasion, oppression, and violence, such as the Jamestown Massacre of 1622 on Tower Two and the Kansas Insurrection on Tower Four. Most frightening of all are his representations of the Civil War, which include savage battles, African Americans being hunted and massacred, a Statue of Liberty overthrown, a winged Satan presiding over the South, and, at the center of the painting, the assassination of Lincoln.

To be sure, Field did not forget to memorialize euphoric moments in American history; the first settlements, the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Centennial. But, clearly, the narrative that leads to America's final glory oscillates between triumph and tragedy, apotheosis and apocalypse. This kind of twisting historical spiral resembles a form of religious rhetoric known in orthodox Calvinist churches as a
jeremiad.
[3] In jeremiads, which Field would have known from listening to sermons at the North Amherst Congregational Church, history is never a charmed path, but is a continual opposition between states of crisis and redemption. In the imagination of Field and others who still believed in Calvinist orthodoxy, American history, like biblical history, was probational.

It was non-chronological, too. Instead of progressing vertically up each tower, history in the Historical Monument is broken and scattered across different towers at different levels. Studying the picture, or consulting the Descriptive Catalogue that Field published to accompany it, it is evident that some events, such as the Revolution, are not self-contained stories but are dispersed over many towers [4] For example, the Declaration of Independence and revolutionary battle scenes are in the midsection of the third tower from the right. But the surrender of Cornwallis and Washington's resignation from the army are near the summit of the fourth tower from the left. Among Field's many chronological displacements, the most notable is in the center of the short central tower where John Wilkes Booth assassinates Lincoln while Washington looks on and raises his hand in horror.

The appearance of Washington at Lincoln's murder and the other anti-chronological juxtapositions that re-weave history are based on another Calvinist rhetorical device, that of figuration.[5] In figurative logic, someone or something from the past is the prefiguration of someone or something in the future. And, similarly, the future is the fulfillment of the promise of the past. Though separate in chronological time, in Field's metaphoric time Washington and Lincoln are intimately linked by their extraordinary sacrifices for and tenacious visions of a nation during the crises of the American Revolution and the Civil War.[6]

 

 

Endnotes

1. For Field's life, see Mary Black, Erastus Salisbury Field (Springfield, Mass.: Museum of Fine Arts, 1984).

2. For Field's itinerancy and entrepreneurial skills, see David Jaffee, "One of the Primitive Sort: Portrait Makers of the Rural North, 1760-1860," in The Countryside in the Age of Capitalism: Essays in the Social History of Rural America, Steven Hahn and Jonathan Prude, eds. (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1985), pp. 103-138.

3. See Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978).

4. Most, but not all of the individual scenes in the picture were described in a cursory way by Field in Descriptive Catalogue of the Historical Monument of the American Republic (Amherst, Mass.: H. M. McCloud, 1876).

5. For figuration, see Erich Auerbach, "Figura," in Scenes from the Drama of European Literature (New York: Meridian Books, 1959), pp. 29-53.

6. For a lengthy discussion of the ideas of figuration and the jeremiad in Field's picture, see Paul Staiti, "Ideology and Rhetoric in Erastus Salisbury Field's Historical Monument of the American Republic," Winterthur Portfolio, 27, no. 1 (Spring 1992), pp. 29-43.

 

About the author

At the time of publication of the essay, these biographical notes for the author were included in the catalogue.

Paul Staiti is the Alumnae Foundation Professor of Fine Arts at Mount Holyoke College, where he has been on the faculty since 1973. He is the author of Samuel F. B. Morse (1990) and co-author and co-curator of John Singleton Copley in America (1995), a book and exhibition sponsored by The Metropolitan Museum of Art. He has also published essays on William Michael Harnett, Erastus Salisbury Field, and the National Academy of Design. Professor Staiti has held the J. Clawson Mills Fellowship from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Endowment for the Humanities Research Fellowship at the H.F. du Pont Winterthur Museum and a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship.
 

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