Historical Monument of the American Republic, finally finished in 1888, was Field’s most famous painting. It was rejected for the Centennial Exposition, which it was painted to commemorate.
As I traveled from event to event this summer, people would ask me whether I was interested in doing this or that upcoming show. With the rise of plein air events, it would be easy to carve out a life as an itinerant painter, going from place to place all year long. I’m not planning to do it, but we have a tradition of itinerant painters in this country and its romance does kind of bewitch me.
Erastus Salisbury Field was a 19th century itinerant folk painter. Most of Field’s life was spent in western Massachusetts and the Connecticut Valley, although he did do two stints in New York City.
Woman with a Green Book (possibly Louisa Gallond Cook), 1838, was one of many itinerant portraits painted by Field before photography made this business obsolete.
By age 19, Field had displayed sufficient drawing chops to be taken as a student by Samuel F. B. Morse—yes, that Morse, who was a well-known painter and teacher besides being the inventor of the single-wire telegraph and the Morse code. Field’s few short months with Morse were the sum total of his formal education in painting. After Morse abruptly closed his teaching studio, Field returned to Massachusetts with enough technique to set up shop as an itinerant decorative painter and portrait painter.
In the 1840s, Field answered the siren call of New York again, relocating his family to Greenwich Village. After seven years, he was called back to Massachusetts to manage his ailing father’s farm.
The Garden of Eden, c. 1860, by Erastus Field.
It’s believed that Field studied the nascent art of photography in New York, but whether that’s true or not, he certainly saw the handwriting on the wall. He turned from painting portraits to painting landscapes and history and Bible scenes. His most famous work, The Historical Monument of the American Republic, is a complex metaphor for American history. He worked on it for 21 years. He was a terrifically productive painter, with about 300 works still surviving.
Field died at home on June 28, 1900 at the age of 95.
Field’s granddaughter-several-times-removed was my friend in Lewiston in the 1980s. She was also a talented and largely self-trained artist.
Message me if you want information about next year’s workshops.