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Seth Eastman: The Soldier Artist

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Seth Eastman: The Soldier Artist

by Patricia Condon Johnston

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The Artist

Largely unbeknownst to the outside world, Captain Eastman was also amassing an amazing portfolio of paintings of Indian life. Consumed by an unquenchable passion to preserve for posterity the customs of a race he thought to be dying, Eastman was assembling a pictorial history of the Dakota that would be second to none. Landscape artist Charles Lanman was spellbound by Eastman’s collection. This "soldier-artist of the frontier," reported Lanman, had devoted his leisure time "to the study of Indian character, and the portraying upon canvass [sic] of their manners and customs, and the more important fragments of their history.
Enlarge: Middle-age Eastman

Enlarge

The reasons for Eastman’s success as a painter of Indians are somewhat obvious. In addition to a well-honed, natural talent for delineation, he had ample time on the frontier. Other artists periodically went west to paint the native people, but most could only work hurriedly for a few weeks, frantically transferring Indian images to their canvases, before returning to their eastern studios. None had Eastman’s advantage of a long-term military residency among the Indians. Living among them, he became fluent in their language and familiarized himself not only with their colorful external trappings but also with the whole complex fabric of Indian culture.

At the same time that Seth Eastman’s Indian paintings were first coming to the nation’s attention, the army officer became aware of an opportunity to make use of his unique ability that could only come once in his lifetime. Congress had authorized the publication of a major study on the American Indian, written by explorer and former Indian agent Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. The post of illustrator, if there was to be one, was still open.


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