THE OFFICER AS ARTIST: JOSEPH HORACE EATON; April 2012
By Stacia Lewandowski
As a career U.S. Army officer, Joseph Horace Eaton led a distinguished military career that brought him to the forefront of some seminal events of nineteenth-century America: battles fought between Mexico and the United States, the U.S. adoption of the Southwest territories, the Civil War, and life as a presidential aide in the White House. Today Eaton is also recognized as an artist, one who produced some of the rarest works of New Mexico art still extant. During those initial years of U.S. occupation of the New Mexico territory (after 1846), Eaton experienced life in this rugged terrain while stationed at newly established frontier forts. Over a period of four years, from 1852 to 1856, he produced several watercolor paintings, fresh depictions of what he was seeing.
Born in 1815 in Salem, Massachusetts, Joseph Horace Eaton spent four years at West Point Military Academy, graduating in 1835, before reaching his twentieth birthday. His studies at the academy included art. At this time, such training was of considerable importance. Officers were expected to be able to render topographical sketches, maps, and architectural renderings. According to Robert White, in "Artists of Territorial New Mexico: 1846-1912," classes in figure drawing were also a part of the curriculum. Eaton's teachers included Seth Eastman, (also a West Point graduate, whose works hang in the U.S. Capitol and varied museums) and Robert Weir, a respected painter who had trained and worked in Italy.
During the 1840s, Eaton was involved in maneuvers of the American westward expansion across the continent. This "frontier duty" included stints in Louisiana, Missouri, and the military occupation of Texas. Once the war between the U.S. and Mexico broke out in 1846, Eaton fought in several battles, including Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma, Monterrey and Buena Vista. For his "gallant and meritorious conduct" Eaton received two promotions, first to Brevet Major and then to Brevet Lieutenant Colonel. For part of this war period, Eaton served as aide-de-camp to General Zachary Taylor. When Taylor became president of the United States, Eaton served as an aide to Taylor in the White House, while holding a post in the Adjutant General's Office. Robert White stated that during this time Eaton painted Zachary Taylor's portrait, a painting that today is in the art collection of West Point.
Circumstances changed for Eaton after the death of the president in 1850. He resumed his standard military duties and was again assigned to "frontier duty." This time he was sent to New Mexico. It was 1852. Over the course of four years Eaton held posts at three different military installations: Fort Defiance (in Navajo Country); Fort Thorn (near Hatch in southern New Mexico); and near Albuquerque. Eaton's wife and son accompanied him to New Mexico and during their stay, Mrs. Eaton had another child, a baby girl born at Fort Thorn.
During these four years in the territory, Eaton did a series of watercolors. Some of these works were used as the basis for engravings that became . . .
CONTINUE: illustrations for a book, published in 1857, entitled "El Gringo: or New Mexico and Her People." One of the earliest accounts of life in the early days of territorial New Mexico, it was written by William Watts Hart Davis who had held various official titles including Territorial Secretary and Acting Governor. Robert White surmises that as many as eleven of Eaton's pictures were later engraved on wood and used as illustrations in the Davis book. Further, White writes: "Whether Eaton did any of these watercolors at Davis's request is not known, but Davis was fortunate to have access to them, for Eaton's pictures demonstrated a good understanding of composition and perspective, and they greatly enhanced Davis's descriptions of the territory."
At the time that White was working on his PhD dissertation, completed in May, 1993, he noted the following paintings as the only known surviving New Mexico watercolors by Eaton: a view of Fort Thorn; the Plaza of Albuquerque - dated 1855 (now in the collection of the Albuquerque Museum); Pueblo of Taos, South Pueblo; and Santa Fe ('From the Southern Entrance near Capella de Nuestra Senora de Guadelupe').
In recent years, two additional works have surfaced and are now in the collection of Zaplin Lampert Gallery. Each of these paintings served as an image from which engravings were produced for Davis's book. The first, entitled "Lower Covero" c. 1855, (pictured second above) was the image used for the frontispiece of the book. Additional historical information is included on verso of this painting, including a hand-written note in pencil by Davis himself. He wrote:
"Col. Eaton was A.D.C. to General Taylor, Mexican War--These water colors were painted for me while I lived in New Mexico - 1853-57 W.W.H.D."
"Don Fernandes de Taos", c. 1855, (pictured at top), also includes additional information on verso. In Eaton's hand, in ink is written: "View of Don Fernando de Taos N.M. Looking NE of North to the Taos Mountains."
The provenance for these works show that they are descended directly from the heirs of William Watts Hart Davis.
Joseph Horace Eaton retired from the military after his service in New Mexico. However, once the Civil War erupted, he resumed military life with the designation of major. This time he did not participate in battles, but filled the position of Assistant Paymaster-General for the U.S. Army. By the end of the war, Eaton had risen to the rank of Brevet Brigadier General. Eaton remained in the service of the U.S. Army, eventually serving at Fort Vancouver, along the Columbia River in Washington state. Upon his retirement, he moved to Portland, Oregon, just across the Columbia River and lived there until his death in 1896. Eaton is buried in Portland's Riverview Cemetery.
Robert White: "Artists of Territorial New Mexico: 1846-1912," 1993, unpublished dissertation
Randol B. Fletcher: "Portland's Joseph Eaton Remembered for his Paintings of New Mexico," March 12, 2012, OregonHerald.com