A Rare Respite

Watercolor captures short sabbatical in old Fort Smith

Posted: February 25, 2018 at 1 a.m.

This 1820 Samuel Seymour watercolor is called “Fort Smith Arkansaw.” It is considered the “only known image of the first Fort Smith” and is on loan from the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University (Coll.820).

Given that Fort Smith will spend this year celebrating its 200th birthday, the Fort Smith Museum of History has found the perfect image in celebration: Artist Samuel Seymour's 1820 watercolor painting titled "Fort Smith Arkansaw" -- the only known image of the original wooden Fort Smith, built by the earliest soldiers stationed in the area around December of 1817 -- will be hanging in the museum for viewing through March 31. It's on loan to the museum from the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.

Seymour was traveling with the Rocky Mountain Expedition led by Major Stephen Long in 1819 and 1820 when he sketched the fort. He later colored the drawing using watercolors when he returned to his home in Philadelphia. The artwork includes four soldiers -- two farming on the grounds, one sitting in a chair and one on guard.


‘Fort Smith Arkansaw’:

An 1820 rendering of the first Fort Smith

WHEN — 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; through March 31

WHERE — Fort Smith Museum of History, 320 Rogers Ave., Fort Smith

COST — $2-$7

INFO — 783-7841

"[Seymour's] task was important," says museum exhibit designer Caroline Speir, who spent months researching the expedition in preparation for the work's display in Fort Smith. "These were scientific explorations. His job was to document the land of the Louisiana Purchase. He was the first commissioned artist on a United States expedition. For the Lewis and Clark expedition, they didn't have an artist specifically assigned, but Seymour was there to draw the landscape and the population of the West and how the military interacted with natives."

Speir says that, from reading notes about the expedition, it seems clear that it was not an easy one: The team was split in two in order to move faster and conserve supplies, and things became even more difficult when three soldiers abandoned the Army, taking some of the last healthy horses with them. The 10-day respite the team was able to take in Fort Smith was probably a relief on all counts, Speir speculates.

"They recuperated, and the first thing Seymour bought were socks," says Speir with a laugh. "They ate, that kind of thing. It's completely my personal opinion, but I think the image of the fort -- it wasn't originally included in the other images I have seen of Fort Smith. I think this image was made in the first day or two of when he arrived, and I think as an artist, he did what artists do -- he was on respite, and he sketched while he relaxed."

Speir says reproductions of the 1820 watercolor have been available at the museum for some time, but she urges people to visit while the original is on display.

"You might think it's slightly anticlimactic, because you've seen the image before," she says. "But what's really neat is that this image is smaller -- it's about five by eight, right out of his sketchbook -- and that's part of the appeal and the allure of the original. The colors are more defined in the original as opposed to the reproduction. You get variations of color, little nuances like that, when you see the original. You can see some of the borders he drew that you don't see on the reproduction."

Speir says the Fort Smith Museum of History staff has had to take extraordinary measures to keep the 200-year-old artwork safe while in their care, including having it mounted on archival backing and protected by museum glass.

"We put it in a locked, alarmed case, and there's no photography allowed," she says. "They don't want us to do anything that might add to the deterioration of it."

NAN What's Up on 02/25/2018