The Garden of Eden

about 1860
Erastus Salisbury Field (American, 1805–1900)


Dimensions

88.26 x 116.52 cm (34 3/4 x 45 7/8 in.)

Accession Number

48.1027

Medium or Technique

Oil on canvas

On View

Joyce and Edward Linde Gallery (Gallery 237)

Collections

Americas

Classifications

Paintings

About 1860, after the death of his wife, Erastus Salisbury Field set aside his busy portrait-painting practice in Ware, Massachusetts, and began creating religious and historical pictures. Although his brief period of training with painter Samuel F. B. Morse [48.455] in New York no doubt exposed him to the conventions of high-style history painting, Field’s own works in the genre were highly idiosyncratic and reflected his increasingly eccentric personality. Although Field’s neighbors are reputed to have marveled at the extraordinary and often gargantuan pictures he created, his work seldom found a market, and many of his canvases were found stacked up against the walls of his studio—little more than a shack—when he died.
The Garden of Eden (which exists in two versions; the second is at the Shelburne Museum, Vermont) was among the first of Field’s biblical subjects. Although based to some degree on paintings of the Genesis creation story by such well-known artists as the British romantic painter John Martin and the American Thomas Cole [47.1188], which Field probably knew from illustrated Bibles and inexpensive engravings, Field’s Eden reflects equally his own fantasy world. His paradise is a lush and precisely organized place. The cone-shaped mountains recede in orderly rows, New England fruit trees are matched with tropical palms, and—like a miniature Noah’s ark—the animals are arrayed in pairs, with such exotic species as elephants, giraffes, and zebras coexisting amicably with their domestic brethren.

When the Museum acquired The Garden of Eden in 1948, it looked significantly different than it does now. It seemed less a depiction of the events leading up to the expulsion from paradise than an illustration of Adam naming the animals (as described in Genesis 2:19–20), for neither Eve nor the serpent was present. Conservators discovered that they had been painted over (possibly, according to the artist’s great-nephew, at the request of his prudish spinster aunt). Once the censorious overpaint was removed and the picture returned to the artist’s original conception, the seeds of discord were again visible in paradise.

This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).

Provenance

About 1860, the artist; 1916, descended in the artist's family to his grand nephew, Carey S. Hayward, Pittsfield, Mass.; 1948, sold by Carey S. Hayward to Maxim Karolik, Newport, R.I.; 1948, gift of Maxim Karolik to the MFA. (Accession Date: December 9, 1948)

Credit Line

Gift of Maxim Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815–1865