Seth Eastman (1808-1875)
Property from a Distinguished Canadian Collection
Seth Eastman (1808-1875)

Feeding the Dead

Seth Eastman (1808-1875)
Feeding the Dead
inscribed with title and signed 'Capt. S. Eastman U.S.A. Delt.' (on the paper support)
watercolor on paper laid down on paper
7 1/8 x 9 5/8 in. (18 x 24.5 cm.)
Executed circa 1850.
Goodspeed's, Boston, Massachusetts, by 1934.
Erskine Hewitt, Ringwood, New York.
Estate of the above, 1938.
Parke-Bernet, New York, 19 October 1938, lot 423, sold by the above.
William Coverdale, Murray Bay, Quebec, Canada, (probably) acquired from the above.
(Probably) Acquired by the late owner from the above.
H.E. Schoolcraft, The Indian Tribes of the United States, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1884, p. 213, illustrated.

Lot Essay

As an officer in the U.S. Army during the 19th century, Seth Eastman was afforded some of the earliest opportunities to observe and document the lives and customs of Western Native American peoples. Best known for his unique and objective view on Native life, Eastman lived among his subjects while stationed at frontier forts, including at Fort Snelling, located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers near present-day Minneapolis, Minnesota. This locale and the Dakota people living in the area likely inspired the scene depicted in Feeding the Dead.

Sarah E. Boehme writes regarding the history of Eastman’s work, "Between 1849 and 1855 the artist prepared illustrations for Henry Rowe Schoolcraft's monumental publication Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History, Condition and Prospects of the Indians Tribes of the United States. Schoolcraft, a self-taught geologist, former Indian agent, and collector of Indian legends, obtained a commission to produce a report on the status of Indian tribes, a publication authorized by Congress in 1847. Eastman, who eagerly sought the post of illustrator for the comprehensive report, eventually produced over eighty-five compositional drawings of Indian life and of landscapes, as well as more than 180 technical drawings of artifacts and maps. These were the basis for lithographs, chromolithographs, and engravings that were interspersed throughout the lengthy text." ("An Officer and an Illustrator: On the Indian Frontier," Seth Eastman: A Portfolio of Native American Indians, Afton, Minnesota, 1995, p. 2)

Reproduced as a steel engraving within this six-volume tome, Feeding the Dead illustrates the Dakota funereal practice of bringing nourishment to the deceased, who were traditionally buried on scaffolds in the open air. The painting shows a detailed landscape including a body of water and high hills, but primarily focuses on the mechanics of the ritual at hand, accentuating the real emotional content of the scene, while avoiding unnecessary drama. Although perhaps not a photographic reproduction of the event, the painting effectively conveys with Eastman’s celebrated trustworthiness both the untouched cultural and geographical uniqueness of America at this early date.

In 1868, Eastman produced an oil painting closely relating in composition to the present work, also titled Feeding the Dead, which is in the collection of the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C.

One of the previous owners of the present work, Erskine Hewitt, was an avid collector of Americana and Revolutionary War Artifacts. Much of the Hewitt collection was donated to the Cooper Hewitt in New York, founded by his sisters Sarah and Eleanor in 1896.

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