Seth Eastman

Artist Biography

Seth Eastman was a military leader, a painter, and an admirer of Western landscape. Born in Brunswick, Maine, he entered the Military Academy at West Point at 16 years old where he studied drawing under the engraver and miniature painter Thomas Gimbrede. Eastman’s artistic aptitude would come in handy as he would later work as a topographical draftsman along the frontier. At each posting, he created sketches and paintings documenting the rivers, hillsides, and prairies of the American West. When his former teacher died in 1832, Eastman returned to West Point to work as the assistant teacher of drawing, even writing A Treatise on Topographical Drawing as a textbook for the students. Eastman continued honing his own artistic skills throughout this time and exhibited his landscapes at both the National Academy of Design and the Apollo in New York.

In 1840, when the Academy found a new permanent teacher, Eastman continued his military career with postings in Florida, Minnesota, and Texas where he developed a growing interest in depicting Native Americans. While stationed at Fort Snelling for seven years, Eastman devoted much time to observing the American Indians living in nearby areas, in particular the Dakota (Sioux) and Ojibwa (Chippewa) people. Eastman shared his interest in Native American culture with his wife, Mary, and as he painted depictions of the Indigenous people, she aimed to compile a record of their legends. Eastman would later use his images to illustrate Mary’s books. While portraiture had been the primary mode of representing American Indians, Eastman instead focused on depictions of Native Americans in groups engaged in daily activities or ceremonies. Although he earned a salary from the military, he also sold his works to the American Art-Union, an organization begun in 1838 to promote contemporary American art. Members paid an annual fee and received an arts publication as well as an engraving after a painting. Eastman’s paintings were entered into an annual raffle alongside other prominent American artists like Thomas Doughty and Sanford Robinson Gifford.

The most significant commission of Eastman’s artistic career was a project sponsored by the United States government to illustrate the text Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History, Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States. The six-volume publication took Eastman five years to illustrate and affirmed his status as a historian of the American Indian, an identity he still holds today. As John Francis McDermott writes, “he became the most effective pictorial historian of the Indian in the nineteenth century.”[1] His illustrations prompted a later commission as well, this time for the Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Between 1867 and 1869, Eastman painted a series of nine paintings depicting Native American life for the House Committee on Indian Affairs.

Eastman’s relationship with the Native Americans was complicated due his career in the military and commissions from the government, but through his paintings he has preserved aspects of Native American life from the nineteenth century. During his lifetime, he exhibited works with the National Academy, the American Art-Union, and the Washington Art Association. Today, his paintings are found in important collections across the country, including the Saint Louis Art Museum, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, and Joslyn Art Museum.

[1] John Francis McDermott, Seth Eastman: Pictorial Historian of the Indian (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961), 3.

Read Less

Contact Us About This Artist

    This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

      Go To Top