As the wind whistled through the glass panes of the creaking Fort Snelling house, a man dressed in a high-collared white ruffled shirt, fitted vest and short trousers looked over his paintings as he crouched around a dim fire.
The scene could have been mistaken for a winter afternoon more than 100 years ago, except for the light bulbs illuminating the parlor and the electrical cords snaking across the bare wood floors.
Cameras captured David Geister, a local artist and Historic Fort Snelling site guide, who was dressed as Seth Eastman, a commanding officer at the fort in the 1840s. The scene wasn't a historical reenactment but a segment of the PBS television show "History Detectives."
The show was in town to investigate the authenticity of a painting thought to be one by Eastman, who not only served in the Army but also painted hundreds of works depicting the life of the Dakota Indians around him.
"He felt Native American people were vanishing and wanted to record them in their natural environment," said Geister, who emphasizes that Eastman's perception of the future of Indian people was based on his 19th century bias.
For people who think they might own a piece of history -- from a belt buckle of a Civil War hero to a car driven in a Hollywood movie -- "History Detectives" sends one of its four hosts to investigate. These "detectives" are actually experts in the fields of art history, sociology, architecture and appraisal.
For this episode of the show, host Tukufu Zuberi, a sociology professor from the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in race relations, came to Minneapolis to uncover whether the painting is authentic.
He visited with Geister, Minnesota Historical Society fine art curator Brian Szott and painting conservators Joan Gorman and David Marquis, who each examined different aspects of the painting. The painting's owner, an Illinois man, submitted it to the show after he bought it online.
Zuberi said while the show's narrative focuses on whether an item is authentic, it often goes beyond that to examine how history is told through the objects.
"That's a big question because anthropologists and archeologists use [Eastman] as an authoritative source for the life of the Dakota," he said. "How odd is it that the life of the Dakota was seen through the eyes of an Army officer who was sent here to displace them?"
Eastman received his artistic training at the U.S. Military Academy, which taught him to focus on details and portray things exactly as he saw them, Geister said. This type of artwork was often used to retell battles or create maps.
"Artists at that time tended to go for something romantic or savage when they were portraying Indian people, but Eastman was in the middle, which is what makes his work so valuable," Geister said.
Geister, who spent four years in the Marines, became interested in Eastman partly because of their similar backgrounds in the military and art. Geister has painted watercolors based on Eastman's work and has also re-created Eastman's sketchbook. More than 40 of Eastman's paintings are housed at the Minnesota Historical Society and his original sketchbook is at the Minneapolis Public Library.
As to whether the painting is an authentic Eastman, "History Detectives" said viewers will have to wait until the episode airs later this year.
Lora Pabst • 612-673-4628