The Capitol Dome

2018 Dome 55.1

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The PrinciPal ForTiFicaTions oF The UniTed sTaTes: The Final PainTings oF general seTh easTman by James lancel mcelhinney D uring the summer of 1875, in a small room, in a small house at 1221 K Street in Washington, D.C., work commenced on a canvas for which the artist bore great hope. The painting was part of a series, preceded by 16 others. Laying out the composition, a majestic vision began to take shape, which many Americans would have recognized as the Hudson Highlands viewed from West Point. Seth Eastman (fig. 1) had first beheld the vista in 1824, when the diffident 16-year-old cadet from Maine could not have foreseen the course his life would take. He sat down at his easel and began to work. It would be his masterpiece, he assured Edward Townsend, a friend and fellow West Point graduate who had studied drawing with Eastman during his Yuck and Cow years at the academy. 1 Having already completed nine genre-pictures of indig- enous life for the House Committee on Indian Affairs, Eastman was engaged to produce a new group of paint- ings for the House depicting the principal fortifications of the United States. Installed first in rooms occupied by the Committee on Military Affairs, the 17 works Eastman produced were moved into the Cannon House Office Building and later returned to the Capitol, where they hang today. I will endeavor to show why these final works, by this under-recognized artist, are worthy of deeper study and more serious attention. My bias in unfolding these arguments is that of a working artist (fig. 2). More than 25 years ago, seeking to reprise George Catlin's travels from Saint Louis to Fort Union, I researched expeditionary American art- ists such as William Bartram, John-James Audubon, Samuel Seymour, and Titian Ramsay Peale II. Brian W. Dippie's remarkable book Catlin and His Contempo- raries: The Politics of Patronage first introduced me to Eastman and his collaboration with Henry Rowe Schoolcraft on several massive tomes on indigenous ethnography and archaeology. 2 When funds could not be raised to support the Catlin project, I took some time to regroup. Playwright Arthur Fig. 1. In this Civil War-era portrait photograph, Seth Eastman wears his uniform frock-coat and brigadier general's straps. 16 SEE NOTES FOR IMAGE CREDITS. THE CAPITOL DOME

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