For a House committee, commissioning paintings during the post-Civil War era involved more than matching colors with the furniture. When the House Committee on Indian Affairs hired artist and Army officer Seth Eastman in 1867 to produce nine paintings for their hearing room, his task was not only to decorate their space, but to project an ideology through images.
The committee directed Seth Eastman—an artist best-known for his watercolors of American Indians and landscapes of the “American West”—to produce paintings of American Indian subjects. Eastman stayed with his most familiar material, making landscapes populated with Dakota or Chippewa people performing various tasks: women gathering wild rice, mourners bringing food to a grave site, a buffalo hunt, ice fishing, and others. The point of view that Eastman uses in the composition of these paintings can be interpreted as a variation on a larger theme in American landscape painting frequently seen before the Civil War—that paintings of the spaces beyond “civilization” were hopeful images, in that they showed a place beyond the reach of sectional conflict broiling between the states.
Take Feeding the Dead, for example. Art historians refer to the elevated perspective over an unfolding scene—as if the viewer has just climbed a hill and can view the stretch of land that lies ahead—as the “Jacksonian landscape formula,” due to its common use in American landscape painting around the time of Andrew Jackson's presidency. The line of sight used is both compositional and ideological—the spectator surveys the scene from a magisterial viewpoint, not only taking part in, but presiding over it, visually possessing the landscape—practically an illustration of the idea of Manifest Destiny. With this in mind, Eastman accomplishes compositionally what the Committee could only hope for: a benevolent possession of the Western landscape. This style of painting, though, was several generations behind the times by 1865. The “Jacksonian” views from the 1840s and been replaced by the gargantuan scale of landscapes by Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt of the 1850s, which had a more awe-inspiring effect. By 1867, even the grand-scale style of landscape painting was also past its most fashionable, so when Eastman's paintings came to the Capitol, the Indian Affairs’ paintings were positively retro.
The House, though, was not in the business of showcasing cutting edge art. The controlled—and hopeful—tranquility of the Eastman Indian paintings struck the chord that the committee was seeking in the tumultuous years following the Civil War.
Sources: William Truettner, ed., The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820-1920 (Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991).