Born May 19, 1805 to Erastus Field and Salome Ashley Field, Erastus Salisbury Field began his life as an ordinary farmer’s son. Even though he would later become one of America’s most well-known folk artists, he grew up isolated from any major artistic community. Presumably, his only influences were the crafting traditions of local part-time artisans in the small town of Leverett where he lived. Nevertheless, his parents encouraged his childhood artistic development and provided him with some painting tools. He spent his childhood on his father’s farm and in the Hubbard’s tavern, which belonged to a family friend. Eventually, that tavern would be filled with the works of E. S. Field, as the Hubbards were his biggest patrons. Though he attended Leverett Center school, Erastus Salisbury was mostly self-taught as a painter. When he had achieved local success with his painting, he desired to take his craft further; he was ready to go to a city and learn form a master.
Erastus Salisbury spent three months in the winter of 1824-1825 in New York at the studio of portrait-maker Samuel F. B. Morse, better known for his invention of the telegraph. At that time, he was only 19 years old, and his education in New York made a large impression on him not only in terms of his painting, but also in terms of his philosophies. In particular, his encounter with General Lafayette, who visited the studio to have a portrait made, influenced his moral and patriotic outlooks. Unfortunately for Erastus, after three months at the studio, Morse’s wife died and Erastus was sent back to Leverett. There he spent some time with his brothers Phineas and Stillman and there he painted his first known work, which began his career as a portraitist in earnest. This portrait was of his grandmother, Elizabeth Billings Ashley, and it is representative of his earliest works.
To provide context for E. S. Field’s work, we should look at major trends and practices in painting at that period of time. Portraiture was very popular in England and America; academic artists who were formally trained painted exclusively for the wealthy classes while self-taught rural artists painted for the middle class and traveled from town to town with their supplies. This could be lucrative, but these rural portraitists needed to work quickly with little effort and details of clothing and expression. To do so, they fell back on compositional conventions which make all folk portraits look very similar and easily groupable within one genre.
Erastus Salisbury Field’s first known portrait, of Elizabeth Ashley Field, falls solidly into that genre. His subject is set in an ambiguous space with a neutral gray background that darkens at the edges to provide an illusion of shadow and depth. Her facial features and dress are carefully outlined and filled with color. Minimal folds and creases create depth, yet the harsh outlines seem flat and patterned. There is limited shading, and the space is shallow. Furthermore, Erastus had very little knowledge of anatomy, and thus his portrayals of hands and shoulders/necks often seem slightly off. In general, Erastus painted expressive representations of facial features and compelling images (particularly a red upholstered chair, which was Field’s recurring prop). His portraits are symmetrical with linear patterns, minimal but effective color, and a decorative sense of design.
From 1825 to 1840, Erastus Salisbury Field was a steady portraitist. He became quicker as he developed and improved his skill; in fact, he often completed portraits within a day! His meticulous smoothing and careful lines gave way to rapid and fluid strokes as he became more confident. One thing that stayed constant was his price–he charged $4 for large portraits of adults and $1.50 for smaller portraits of children. Don’t be fooled: these were substantial sums of money; but trained artists received $300 per portrait.
In 1831, Erastus Salisbury married Phebe Gilmur of Ware, Massachusetts. This marriage departed from the local custom of marrying someone within the community, and it is likely that Erastus was given the privilege of breaking some community traditions because he traveled for his career. In 1832, Phebe and Erastus had their first and only child, Henrietta, in Monson, Massachusetts.
In the next years, E. S. Field worked on painting expeditions and created a network of patron family and friends in New England. He was able to grow to financial success, and he bought property in Three Knives, Massachusetts in 1833. His best work was portraiture, and sometime between 1836 and 1840 he created two of his best works–portraits of the missionary couple Reverend Dyer Ball and Lucy H. Mills Ball. These portraits demonstrate his still flawed but beautifully detailed skill. These portraits have many of the same conventions of folk portraiture that the painting of Elizabeth Billings Ashley has–the subjects are in the center of the canvas, slightly turned, seated on red chairs, holding props, and set against neutral backgrounds that blend with their neutral clothes. Yet the character of these two subjects is portrayed well through the props, through detailed facial expressions, and through balls of light that hover behind each subject and indicate their spiritual light that they spread through missionary work.
In 1838, perhaps tired by travel and the plateauing of his skill, Erastus moved to New York City and explored new subjects. At that time, photography was becoming more popular and less expensive due to technological developments and a popular fascination with realism. Necessarily, portraiture and painting in general had to respond to changing markets and styles, especially as a new art, daguerreotypy, a type of inexpensive photo portraiture, became widely practiced. Exploring this new medium of photography, Erastus followed a new trend in portraiture to use photos as models. The above painting of Lucius Field was painted in this way, and it hints at some of the shortcomings of this type of work by Field. His photo-based paintings lacked the expressive characterizations and decorative power of his earlier work, and his new emphasis on realism clashed with his incomplete knowledge of anatomy and produced more distinctly awkward bodily representations.
But daguerreotypy wasn’t the only new artistic form that Erastus explored–he delved into landscape, historical, religious, mythological, and literary themes. In fact, he liked these new subjects so much that by 1842 he had listed himself as an artist in general in the city directory, rather than as a portraitist as he had listed himself in years prior. His first known subject piece was “The Embarkation of Ulysses,” modeled on a print by J. W. Appleton entitled “A City in Anciet Greece.” Copying work in this manner was common among artists, and while the images are similar, the mythological overtones and color were all Erastus’s. This painting is still very folksy, and Erastus painted the edge of the canvas to look like a frame.
In this new vein of subject painting, Erastus was preoccupied by religious and patriotic themes. This is demonstrated by his paintings “Lincoln and His Generals” and the “Historic Monument of the American Republic.” Both of these paintings are symmetrical, linear, decorative, and indicative of his own philosophical beliefs. In the first, we can see the characteristic anatomical inaccuracies as well as the detailed design, expressive features, and standard red upholstered chairs favored by Field. In the second, which departs wholly from his previous works, the only clear markers of Field’s hand are the manifestations of his philosophical beliefs depicted in the towers of his monument.
Erastus started his “Monument” during the end of the Civil War, and it consists of originally eight but eventually ten towers connected by steel bridges which support steam engines. An accompanying descriptive catalog, common for large historic works at that time, explains the painting in detail and clearly indicates Field’s patriotic and religious views. While the painting was completed in 1867, the catalog was not published until 1876, and it does not include the two towers that Field added to the painting. It does, however, describe the monument more clearly as a history of a conflict of good versus evil, North versus South, God versus devil. The painting itself is a religious allegory of political and ideological conflicts, a combination of history and folk ideology. Erastus intended for it to be built, but not by himself, and his dream was never fulfilled.
Prior to starting the “Monument,” in 1849 Erastus’s wife Phebe died, and in 1950 Erastus moved back to the Leverett area and built a tiny shack on Plumbtree Lane just outside Sunderland. Though he recorded the faces and beliefs of his time, he was never more than a local artist. In an interview by Agnes Dods with Asa Lee Field, Asa said, “I knew he was a painter, but people never did appreciate his ability, in those days; they didn’t appreciate the way they do now his paintings.”
Erastus died in obscurity in 1900, and in 1908 some of his paintings were given to the Ladies’ Aid Society of Leverett, but they disappeared in 1928. In 1941, Erastus was recognized as an important folk artist, and in 1958 a canvas of the Moor family from Ware was included in an exhibition of American folk art at the World’s Fair in Brussels. However, it wasn’t until 1963 when the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection held an exhibit on his work that he was fully acknowledged. His “Monument” resides at the Springfield Fine Arts Museum, accompanied by an audiovisual explanation reminiscent of the original descriptive catalog. We encourage you to visit it in Springfield and then to visit us at the Leverett Family Museum, where you can view other examples of Erastus Salisbury Field’s admirable work.