Executed circa 1844.
Born in Philadelphia in 1818, Charles Deas aspired to an Army career, but upon failing to obtain an appointment to West Point he moved to New York to pursue his childhood passion for painting and drawing. The opening of George Catlin's Indian Gallery in 1837 inspired the young artist to follow the path established earlier by Catlin, Alfred Jacob Miller, and Seth Eastman, and in 1840 he travelled to Fort Crawford in Wisconsin, to document "the picturesque forms, customs, attitudes and grouping of nature's own children in the very heart of the noblest scenery of the land." (H. Tuckerman, Book of the Artists, New York, 1967)
Deas' carefully and exceptionally executed canvases gained acclaim throughout his short career. Based in Saint Louis and other points across the midwest throughout the 1840s, Deas would routinely foray into Indian encampments throughout the western territories, observing and recording the Western, and, in particular, Native American ways of life, taking preparatory notes and making sketches to take back to his studio. "In 1845 Deas was described in one newspaper as the 'most purely American in his feelings of any painter we have produced.'" (R. Stewart, The American West: Legendary Artists of the Frontier, Texas, 1986, p. 30)
In the present work, Deas depicts dragoons, or mounted infantry, crossing a river. As noted by J. Schimmel describing this work "the first United States Dragoons, an elite corps of the Army, was organized in 1833. The first officer appointed to its command was Major Stephen Watts Kearny. In 1845, Kearny led a ninety-nine day expedition of five companies of the first Dragoons over the Oregon trail to protect wagon trains from attacking Pawnees and Sioux. As one survivor of the trek wrote, when describing an alarming call of "Indians" at her campsite: 'While under arms awaiting attack a regiment of U.S. soldiers commanded by Captain Kearny appeared. Their gallant commanders assured us that their boys would perform guard duty at nightfall, that our stock should graze in peace and safety and that the weary teamsters might rest.' The painting Dragoons Crossing River represents just the safety this story suggests. Kearny's nephew, Philip, had joined the First Dragoons in 1837 and this painting by Deas was one that he owned, undoubtedly in honor of his own illustrious military career as well as that of his uncle's." (The West Explored, New Mexico, 1988, p. 56)
A pioneering spirit who ambitiously and faithfully painted the early days of the American West, Charles Deas is regarded as one of the West's finest painters of Native American genre scenes and romantic Western imagery. His canvases reflect his commitment to and affection for the people and places he encountered on his travels.
This work has been requested for the Amon Carter Museum's forthcoming exhibition of the artist's works.