Arts and Leisure

Erastus Salisbury Field Paints … And Paints … And Paints His Masterpiece

Erastus Salisbury Field, a gentle, dreamy itinerant painter. traveled around western Massachusetts and the Connecticut Valley in the 1830s painting portraits of country people. Then photography came along and he began to paint fantastical landscapes. Field spent 20 years on one of the oddest paintings of the era, Historical Monument of the American Republic.

Erastus Salisbury Field

Erastus Salisbury Field

Erastus Salisbury Field

He was born May 19, 1805, in Leverett, Mass., then an isolated farming town. He and his twin sister Salome were named after their parents.

Erastus Salisbury Field showed artistic talent at a young age and was sent to the studio of Samuel F. B. Morse to study in New York City. Morse had just finished his grand historical painting, The Old House of Representatives, and he won the commission to paint General Lafayette. Young Field never seemed to forget the old general’s visit to the studio. Perhaps his exposure to Morse’s grand painting and to the Revolutionary War hero sent Erastus Salisbury Field around the bend later in life.

Three months after Field arrived in New York, Morse’s wife died and he closed the studio. Field then returned home to Leverett.

$1.50 for Children

For a decade Erastus Salisbury Field made a good living traveling around western Massachusetts and the Connecticut Valley. He painted hundreds of portraits of people for $4 or $5, $1.50 for children. He had a reputation for capturing “a good likeness” at a single sitting.

The Lady of Squire Williams House

In 1841 he moved to Greenwich Village in New York. He probably studied photography, then putting portrait painters out of business.

Josiah B. Woods, Jr. Courtesy Princeton Museum of Art.

Fantastical Paintings

He then returned to Massachusetts, where he advertised himself as a daguerreotypist. Field also began to paint fantastical landscapes with biblical and historical pictures themes. He worked out of a shed – his studio — in Plumtrees, a village in Sunderland, Mass.

He painted a bizarre portrait of Lincoln with his “generals.” But they included George Washington along with Lincoln’s actual generals:   Ambrose Burnside, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes and Chester A. Arthur.

From 1865 to 1885 he worked on what he considered his masterpiece: the eccentric 9-foot-by-13-foot oil painting called Historical Monument of the American Republic. The work depicts eight towers connected by railroad bridges and trains at the top. Each building told the story of the history of the United States from the settling of Jamestown to the trial of the Whiskey Ring. They appeared as friezes on the towers, as chiseled inscriptions in the buildings, as statues on pedestals jutting up from the parapets .

Field had a dual vision for the work. First, that the Centennial International Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia would exhibit it. And second, that it would provide a blueprint for eight actual towers connected by railroad bridges at the top. The towers would tell the story of America’s history.

He was no doubt disappointed that his monumental work wasn’t accepted at the Philadelphia Exposition, but he had the consolation that his neighbors held it in admiration and came to view it.

Painting, and Church

At 71, he had a print made of the Historical Monument. He then paid to have an 11-page catalog printed, explaining what it all meant.

“A professed architect, on looking at this picture, might have the impression that a structure built in this form would not stand,” he wrote in the catalog. But, he argued, the towers could be filled up with stones, leaving the center hollow for circular stairs reaching to the top.

Historical Monument of the American Republic

Historical Monument of the American Republic, courtesy Springfield Museum of Art.

He lived out his life quietly in rural Massachusetts in the summer, staying with family in Hartford during winters. School children and relatives came to visit him in his studio. He explained his paintings to them despite his deafness. He collected sap and made maple syrup, chopped wood and walked two miles to church on Sunday. In 1900 at the age of 95 he cast his vote for the state election.

Erastus Salisbury Field slipped away on June 28, 1900. His Historical Monument of the American Republic was found rolled up in an attic in 1933.

By then, though, attitudes had begun to change toward American folk art.

Folk art collector Abby Aldrich Rockefeller loaned two of his paintings to the Museum of Modern Art in New York for an exhibition in 1932. Three then went to Brussels in 1958 to be exhibited at the World’s Fair.

Today his work – including the Historical Monument of the American Republic — is now on display in the Springfield Museum of Fine Art.

With thanks to Erastus Salisbury Field 1805-1900 by Mary Black. This story last updated in 2022.

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