Seth Eastman

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SETH EASTMAN, American, (1808-1875)

Seth Eastman portraitSeth Eastman, military officer, draftsman and watercolorist, is best known for his detailed depictions of Native Americans in the upper Mississippi River. As a young cadet at West Point he studied topographic drawing under Robert W. Weir, which served him well as an artist as well as an Army officer. During his years of assigned military duty, he observed and documented the culture and traditions of several Plains Indian tribes including the Dakota Sioux.  He kept detailed sketchbooks in pencil and watercolor that captured the landscape and peoples of the frontier. He had a common law Native American wife (Wakaninajiinwin or Stands Sacred), and so was able to capture simple genre scenes of tribal life.  She is likely the woman depicted in the engravings titled:  Female Mode of Sitting, Indian Woman dressing a Buffalo Skin, Indian Woman Procuring Fuel, and Indian Women Playing the Game of Plum Stones.  The couple hand a daughter Winona, (also known as Mary Nancy Eastman) whose son Charles Alexander Eastman became the first Native American to become an M.D.

When Eastman's tour of duty was finished in 1833 he left his Indian family and returned to New York. Over the next six years, Eastman taught drawing at West Point while exhibiting at both the Apollo Gallery and the National Academy of Design. He also met and married Mary Henderson, the daughter of a West Point surgeon, and in 1841, the couple returned to Fort Snelling where Eastman continued his studies of Native American life for an additional seven years. 

In 1847, Eastman won the Congressional commision to illustrate Information Regarding the History Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes, with text by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. Eastman was chosen as the project's artist, (over George Catlin) and completed over 275 exquisite illustrations to accompany the six-volume set.  The monumental work was published from 1851 through 1857 The engravings, (mostly black and white but some printed in sepia) depicted artifacts, pictographs, and genre scenes. Eastman's illustrations of Western American life combine his detailed and accurate sense of documentation with a subject that he had unique exposure to.  Although lacking the scale and drama of Bodmer and Catlins great works these images are appealing because they offer a simple glimpse of Native American life not shown by other artists. 

After additional tours in Texas and Utah, Eastman served in the Civil War as a Quartermaster General, retiring later as a Brigadier General. Several years later, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Military Affairs also commissioned Eastman to paint images of seventeen important military forts which he completed between 1870 and 1875. These paintings are housed in the Capital Building in Washington, D.C.

Seth Eastman died in 1875 while working in his Washington, D.C. studio. His works are held by Smithsonian, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Gilcrease Museum, the Stark Museum and the Joslyn Museum of Art, The Minnesota Historical Society among others.