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The Eight Wonder Of Erastus Field

March 2023
2min read

He painted his spectacular dream towers to epitomize a hundred years of the American epic—and his own stubborn opinions as well

“A professed architect, on looking at this picture, might have the impression that a structure built in this form would not stand.” Thus, in 1876, did Erastus Salisbury Field begin a description of his Historical Monument of the American Republic —a, structure which, had it ever been built, would have made the Washington Monument look puny. From a massive base rather reminiscent of the Kremlin, its great cylindrical lowers were to push skyward to a height of some 500 feet, with a steam railway operating across steel trestles from one dizzy tower top to another.

“I am not a professed architect, and some things about it may be faulty,” Field admitted. But he was ready to meet the possible objection that stich a structure would not stand. The thing to do, he said, was to fill the towers with concrete, “in one solid mass, all btit the center and the entrance through each Tower … The center in each Tower could be sufficiently large for circular stairs to reach to the top.” The reward for the heroic climb wotdd be a dazzling exposition of the latest developments in American life, housed in the uppermost levels.

Considering the national resources for the manufacture of concrete in 1876, it is perhaps just as well that Field’s wondrous monument never materialixed except on canvas. Nevertheless, it was the culminating work of a folk artist who early in the century had made a good living as a New England portrait painter, but who by 1850, along with most of his colleagues, was engaged in a losing struggle with the daguerreotype. Horn in Leverett, Massachusetts, in 1805, Erastus Field had the good luck, at the age of nineteen, to be noticed by Samuel F. B. Morse, then at the peak of his renown as a portraitist. After a few months of training in Morse’s New York studio in 1824, Field took up an itinerant career as a talented recorder of face and character in many a Connecticut and Massachusetts family. When the market for portraits was spoiled by the camera in mid-century he turned to fanning, but kept his paint brushes busy on elaborate, imaginative pictures based on mythology, history, and the Bible (see The Garden of Eden in A MERICAN H ERITAGE for December, 1955, pp. 56-57).

It is probable that Field began his Historical Monument of the American Republic in response to the announcement in 1874 of a competition tor the design of the central building at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. That he had some hope of seeing his monument actually built is suggested by his pondering the problem of how to make it “stand”; but he was first and last a painter, and it was the pictorial representation that really absorbed him. When he finished it—evidently in 1876, although he added a tower at either side of the canvas sometime later—the architectural competition was long since over, and nothing remotely like Field’s dream towers had appeared at the fair.

In organization of subject matter, this wall-size painting is more an index to the character and thinking of the artist than a systematic portrayal of American history. Field was a man of positive views, especially on slavery, governmental corruption, temperance, and the Bible. As he painted his representations of bas-relief and statuary to adorn the towers of the monument, these beliefs pushed irrepressibly forward to dominate his vision of the American past. All the standard “great moments” are there, but they are surrounded by scores of less famous incidents that happened to appeal to Field’s somewhat peculiar fancy. On subjects that he felt very intense about—the Civil War, for example—he was inclined to resort to symbolism, thereby encompassing more emotion in less space; while his conviction that the Biblewas the real foundation of the American destiny eluded painting altogether and led to the didactic essay painstakingly lettered on the facade of Tower IV (see detail on pages 16-17). This conviction also seems to explain the initials “T. T. B.”—The True Base—which appear on the towers just below the level of the steam railway.

Erastus Field, who lived until 1900, never had the pleasure of seeing his fabulous monument take threedimensional form, but it cannot be doubted that he drew large satisfaction from the painting alone. It soon slipped into obscurity, however, for many years resting ignominiously in a Massachusetts barn like a rolled-tip tarpaulin. Restored to something like its original freshness in 1962, it was recently shown as part of a Field exhibition at the Abby Aldrich Rocke feller Folk Art Collection in Williamsburg, Virginia, and has now been returned to its permanent home, the Museum of Fine Arts at Springfield, Massachusetts.

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