Erastus Salisbury Field (American, 1805–1900)
137.48 x 86.68 cm (54 1/8 x 34 1/8 in.)
Medium or Technique
Oil on canvas
Not On View
Erastus Salisbury Field is one of America’s best known and most admired folk painters. At the end of his life, an article appeared in a newspaper from central Massachusetts, where he lived, praising his portraits. The account indicated that they were as “nearly correct as can well be made in oil, and give to posterity faithful ideas of the personal appearance of their ancestors” (“Greenfield Gazette and Courier,” June 9, 1900). During the 1830s, there was such a demand for Field’s work among middle-class patrons in his area that he developed a formula of quick brushwork, standard poses, and a limited number of decorative elements (such as gaily painted floors) that enabled him to complete a portrait in a single day. However, beginning in the 1840s, the increased popularity of daguerreotypes (an early form of photography) threatened the market for his portraits. This painting, of Field’s niece Margaret Gilmore, was one of his most ambitious and was sent to the 1845 annual fair of the American Institute of the City of New York to demonstrate his superior skills and to appeal, perhaps, to more upscale patrons.
The painting is unusually large for Field’s single-figure portraits and shows the sitter nearly life-size and close to the picture plane. Margaret’s pose is rigid and conventional, and her body inaccurately drawn, but the carefully chosen and brightly colored clothes and furnishings give the painting great appeal. Her dress, with its square neckline, high waist, and puffy sleeves, was the height of fashion in the late 1830s. By the mid 1840s, this style had become popular among the middle class. The ropes of pearls around Margaret’s neck and bust and the gay rainbow-colored fan she holds were also sought-after fashion accessories that advertised the wearer’s good taste. The table and painted floor cloth were comfortable middle-class furnishings and appear in a number of Field’s portraits. But in place of the painted chair in which he usually posed his sitters, here he introduced a high-style upholstered chair with a curved back outlined by a carved scale motif popularized by the French-born furniture maker Charles Lannuier. The presentation of his subject’s character was calculated to please: the books remind the viewer that Margaret is diligent and well educated; her pleasant expression conveys her good nature; and the crouching cat (who appears in a number of Field’s portraits of young girls, alluding to their kindness to pets) also indicates her amiability.
This text was adapted from Carol Troyen and Janet Comey, “Children in American Art” (Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 2007, in Japanese).
The artist; Mr. and Mrs. Hilliker, Shelton, Conn., until about 1949; Mr. and Mrs. Stephen S. Racz, about 1955; with Israel Sack, New York; to Maxim Karolik, Newport, R.I., 1960; to MFA, 1964, bequest of Maxim Karolik.
Bequest of Maxim Karolik