The Capitol Dome

2018 Dome 55.1

Issue link:

Contents of this Issue


Page 18 of 59

Miller invited me to look after his house and dogs while he and his wife, photographer Inge Morath, traveled to South Africa to meet Nelson Mandela, recently released from Robben Island. Before they left, Arthur handed me a box of VHS tapes of a television show for which he had done some of the narration. It was a new film by Ken Burns on the Civil War, due to be aired the follow- ing spring on PBS. At the same time a story was unfold- ing in Manassas, Virginia as preservationists worked to prevent Beltway developer John "Til" Hazel from building a shopping center on an historic battlefield. I decided to shift my attention to Civil War sites under threat from real estate developers and property-rights activists, and relocated from Philadelphia to Richmond, Virginia. There in a used book shop I came upon a port- folio of prints reproducing Eastman's Principal For- tifications of the United States, published by the U.S. Army Center for Military History. Eastman had come to light during my preparations for the Catlin project. Here he was again, painting subjects I was likely to encoun- ter, such as Forts Sumter, Delaware, and Mifflin. I received a pass to visit Eastman's paintings in the hallways of the Capitol. For several hours, I studied and made drawings of them in my sketchbook, puzzled at why so little had been written about Eastman compared to his contemporaries in the Hudson River School. Over the years I have assembled a collection of secondary sources on Eastman. When traveling, I make a point to seek out his work in museums. The life and work of Seth Eastman (1808–1875) intersects with several major themes within the narrative of nineteenth-century American art, such as drawing instruction in relation to universal education, Hudson River School landscape painting, military exploration, and indigenous ethnography. East- man's forts stand apart, as the epilogue to a life full of promise, hard service, and artistic achievement. His life is certainly worthy of a sprawling biography beyond the length and scope of this article. assisTanT drawing masTer In 1829 Seth Eastman graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he excelled at drawing. Thomas Gimbrede had taken over the drawing depart- ment in 1819, when superintendent Sylvanus Thayer rewrote the academy curriculum to make two hours of drawing per day mandatory for second- and third-year cadets. The course covered mechanical drawing, work- ing from nature, and cartography and observational drawing, which included drawing from prints and plas- ter casts. Gimbrede was a strong advocate of drawing as part of a universal education and known for saying that "Drawing is all curved lines and straight lines. Anyone can draw a curved line. Anyone can draw a straight line. Therefore, anyone can draw." His words echo those of art crusaders like Rembrandt Peale and John Gadsby Chapman. 3 Eastman excelled at drawing during his years as a cadet and continued to develop his skills by sketching the upper Mississippi Valley. Returning to the academy after Gimbrede's untimely death in 1832, Eastman became acting drawing-master and then assistant to Charles Robert Leslie, who was succeeded by Hudson River School painter Robert Walter Weir (fig. 3). Both as a student and later as a teacher, Eastman was in the midst of a revolution in American learning, a push for universal education that promoted drawing not just as an artistic skill but as a path to visual learning and lit- eracy. West Point also was the epicenter of a revolu- tion in American painting. Thomas Cole's View of Fort Putnam (1825) is generally accepted as the seed from which the Hudson River School had grown (fig. 4). The Revolutionary War fort, which had been laid out by Tadeusz Kosciusko, became a magnet for landscape Fig. 2. The author painted this landscape, West Point from Garrison's Landing. 17 THE CAPITOL DOME

Articles in this issue

Archives of this issue

view archives of The Capitol Dome - 2018 Dome 55.1