For our second blog post highlighting military veteran-artists in the House Collection, we look back to the 19th century, at the careers of two Civil War soldiers. One, Freeman Thorp, served in the Army briefly during his youth and later took up painting. The other, Seth Eastman, was a West Point graduate who combined his artistic practice and military service through multiple conflicts over his long career.
Around 1871, Thorp relocated to Washington, D.C., where he ran a photography “atelier” at the U.S. Capitol. Cabinet card photographs and prints made from his photographs and published in illustrated newspapers attest to his prolific output. Thorp also received his first painting commission from Congress: In 1876, the Senate charged him with commemorating Isaac Bassett, their assistant doorkeeper. In 1878, Thorp opted for a career change. He ran for and won a seat in the Ohio state legislature.
More than 20 years later, after he resumed work as an artist, Thorp completed a series of portraits for the House of Representatives. The first assignment came from fellow Union Army veteran, Speaker David Henderson. It was completed in 1903, but not acquired by the House until 1913. Several other portraits came to fruition in the years in between, though. Thorp’s painting of Appropriations Committee Chairman Joe Cannon received particular notice in the press. The fame of the sitter and Thorp’s ear for a good anecdote generated many published accounts of how the artist secretly obtained a lively likeness of the newly elected Speaker. Allegedly, he sat in on a meeting in which Cannon’s colleagues got the Speaker talking about poker, a favorite pastime.
Seth Eastman’s career developed far more methodically. Born in Brunswick, Maine, in 1808, Eastman graduated from West Point Academy in 1829. His first two assignments sent him to the then-frontier, at Fort Crawford, Wisconsin, and Fort Snelling, Minnesota. Although Eastman took to topographical drawing, a required course at West Point, his lifelong engagement with art blossomed out West. He was inspired by the scenic wilderness around him and the local residents, the Spirit Lake People of the Santee Dakota. Eastman learned their language, and they became frequent subjects of his drawings and watercolors for decades to come.
As Eastman’s skill grew, his career made an artistic turn. He was transferred to the Topographical Corps in 1832, which sent him to Louisiana and, later, Connecticut. At the end of that same year, he became a drawing instructor at West Point, where he formally studied with artist Robert Weir in the drawing department.
In the decades that followed, Eastman’s military career took him across the United States—to Florida for the Seminole War, back to Minnesota, to Texas, and during the Civil War, to New England. He drew inspiration from each location, producing landscapes, genre paintings of Native Americans, and portraits along the way. He exhibited these at galleries in New York, and with artist’s organizations, such as the National Academy of Design. In the late 1840s, the Army tapped Eastman’s artistic talents for the first time: The Department of War assigned him to illustrate ethnologist Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s volumes Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History, Conditions and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States.
Eastman’s great artistic ambition, though, had become creating an “Indian Gallery,” an artistic record of Native people, for the U.S. Capitol. Eastman retired from the Army in 1863, but four years later, he rejoined the active list, on receiving the assignment in Washington, D.C., to paint Indian scenes for the House Committee on Indian Affairs. The nine paintings Eastman completed drew from his trove of drawings from his earlier years in Minnesota, depicting regional subjects, such as gathering wild rice, and Dakota dances. He also included picturesque and expected topics, such as a buffalo hunt, a subject from Native culture that had long beguiled East Coast viewers.
Eastman completed this commission in 1869, and the House of Representatives presented him with yet another opportunity. The following year, the House Committee on Military Affairs commissioned from Eastman 17 paintings of military forts, with the intent of showing the peacetime breadth of the armed forces. Eastman completed paintings of forts personally significant to him like Fort Snelling, the station where his interest in art began, as well as locations with historical significance, like Fort Jefferson in Florida, where the Lincoln assassination conspirators were held, and Fort Mifflin in Pennsylvania, known for its defense of the Delaware River during the Revolutionary War.
His long-sought commissions for the U.S. Capitol were the peak of Eastman’s career. He died in 1875, just after completing the Military Affairs commission.
Sources: Washington Post, 27 February 1904, and John Francis McDermott, Seth Eastman: Pictorial History of the Indian (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961).Follow @USHouseHistory