A friend and I traveled to the Springfield Art Museum to see “Intent to Deceive”, a merely interesting exhibit about forgeries. The entrance to the Museum opens into a gallery. Straight ahead, hanging on the far wall in that gallery is a most amazing huge painting. We had just been out in the Dr. Suess sculpture garden, and for a minute, I wondered if we were still there. The painting is a fantastic, in the full sense of the word, allegorical map of early American History. The painter, Erastus Salisbury Field, created 10 allegorical towers on the canvas. They represent events commemorating the early settlement of the thirteen colonies, the creation of the early American government, and then events leading up to and occurring during the civil war. He created the huge painting to confirm the moral superiority of the North; God is on their side.
This is a painting that I would have loved to have known about 30 years ago when I was in art school struggling to figure out how to continue making paintings in a climate that applauded political and performance art. A friend and I, both committed painters, experimented with various approaches. We painted portraits for free on the Coney Island boardwalk as a vehement anti-marketability statement about painting. My friend experimented with choosing as subjects for representational painting various crime scenes pictured in the newspaper. I experimented with portraying current day morality tales such as visionary moments in a holiday Inn parking lot. We were both eager to come up with a premise for painting that made it more viable, more compelling, to a world moving at a technological and experiential pace that threatened to make painting itself obsolete.
Now, here was Erastus with his “Historical Monument of the American Republic”. The structure of the painting could allude to towers of Babel. Upon close scrutiny, I could make out tiers of historical scenes. The painting had text all over it. As with more current art that bears text, I do not generally find this a successful strategy. There are exceptions as in when an artist like Jenny Holzer makes the text the art; that certainly works. But when a mostly visual piece of art tries to incorporate text as a critical element, a viewer can often lose interest. In this case, the text was definately oppressive, but at the same time, it offered clues to this bizarre work. In a funny way, as the painting technique itself was not especially compelling (Erastus started out as a relatively untrained itinerant portrait painter and never learned too much about color for example) the text did not in this case overshadow the painting, but rather seemed an integral part to the bizarre project of “re” presenting history. The painting was created so close in time to some of the events pictured that the artist certainly did not have the critical distance of time. So for us, looking at it now 150 years later, the entire allegorical construct is quite inviting and wonderfully fanciful.
Like most artists, it turns out that Erastus was looking for the best way to earn a living. He transitioned from portrait painting to historical genre painting after eventual exposure to the work of other artists in NYC, and probably as a result of the birth of daguerreotype portraits that rendered portrait painting less popular. “Historical Monument of the American Republic” should be included in the annals of art history, as it is a remarkable essay into political art by a 19th century painter. I like to think about the conviction and proximity to a lunatic fringe mentality that would have given Erastus the determination to create such an unusual painting. I am happy that it can now inform my work as a 21st century painter.