Seth Eastman (1808–1875)
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Eastman_Seth_Winnebago_Encampment_1847

Winnebago Encampment, c. 1847

Seth Eastman led a peculiar hybrid of lives, spending his early years as a soldier and his later years as a painter, living among the Sioux Indians. Born in Brunswick, Maine in 1808, he served in the Seminole Wars in Florida, and, after a post at West Point, Eastman was sent to Fort Snelling in what is today Minnesota. During his time there, he learned the Sioux language and developed a strong respect for the native people, even fathering a child by a Santee Sioux woman. Although Eastman left this family when he was reassigned away from Fort Snelling, he remained strong ties to the Sioux community. When Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s six-volume report on the life and culture of Native Americans (1851-57), Eastman contributed some thirty illustrations. Much of the rest of his career was spent in portraying native life in frank, almost ethnographic terms for the patronage of the federal government.

Because Eastman was a participant in American Indian life rather than strictly an outside observer, he had access to quiet moments of day-to-day life, as well as a sensitivity to the people and the way they were portrayed. The subjects of his paintings are not ennobled or disparaged with “noble savage” mythologies, and the overworked themes of Cowboy-and-Indian battles and Buffalo hunts are absent from Eastman’s oeuvre. The people were not an allegory for Eastman, but a living culture for which he had immense respect. This put Eastman’s pictures in demand as a more anthropological depiction of these human affairs.