Since I am neither an art critic nor an art historian, I tend to gravitate toward paintings that are easy to interpret. For our course on the national parks, one of my favorite examples of low hanging interpretative fruit is John Gast’s American Progress (1872). This painting is one of our best examples of how attitudes toward landscape representation in America changed as the nation rifled on toward a highly industrialized state in the late nineteenth century.
We will talk a lot about the ideologies that are wrapped up in the preservation of “natural” spaces in the national parks this semester. Perhaps no single ideology is more problematic than the doctrine of manifest destiny, or a sense that the teleology of America’s development as a nation is westward expansion and removal of Indian populations. The inevitability of American Manifest Destiny seems to be the message of American Progress, and it provides a context for the development of our national parks.
Compared to earlier examples of American landscape paintings from the early-to-mid nineteenth century, Gast makes no effort to achieve veresimilitude.His painting is a cartoonish conglomeration of the heretofore developed continent, as if it must represent the entire spectrum of a map that spans from the east coast to the Rocky Mountains.
In fact, there is a purpose to the distorted perspective of Gast’s vision, but first, let me mention the obvious elements of the painting. On the right (the east), you can see what appears, spatially or geographically, to be the Great Lakes, or perhaps Manhattan Island, with bridges and ships surrounding it. At the center of the painting is a charming, female ambassador of American liberty, and she, like all of the figures in this work, is facing west, to demonstrate the social and scientific progress of American society as settlers moved across the great plains and toward the west coast.
As Richard Grusin explains, American Progress was commissioned by George A. Crofutt, a traveler and speculator who had published his own guide to the American west. Croffut had a vested financial interest in encouraging the conquest of Native American lands, and he is, then, one of the first people to interpret the painting. Croffut described the ambassador as a “beautiful and charming female…floating westward through the air, bearing on her forehead the ‘Star of Empire'” (72). In her hands she holds a book and a coil of electric power line wire, which together represent the intellectual and scientific improvements that result from American westward expansion.
Behind her are three parallel railroad engines, which appear to be heading down tracks that disappear into the landscape. The message is clear: westward expansion will allow Americans to accomplish what earlier farmers, pioneers, and speculators had done with much lesser means, but only if the nation commits itself to developing the infrastructure that will make expansion possible.
This painting isn’t exactly subtle. Gast divides his allegorical landscape into sections that display various stages of American development. In the bottom left, a man plows a field on a settled homestead, but even he is looking west, toward new possibilities. While the eastern edge of American Progress is illuminated and clear, the western boundary is dark and foreboding, a common motif artists used to represent the uncertainties of conquest on the wilderness frontier.
Conspicuously absent from this painting is the Native American population. Of course, one could argue that the figures shrouded in darkness on the right (west) are Indians, but they are running, along with the buffalo-looking blobs, away from the advancing progress. This representation certainly whitewashes their departure and leaves unanswered the question of where they will go when all of the land has been taken.
Gast’s American Progress is sheer propaganda for American conquest of the frontier, yet it’s not unlike other paintings of its time. Another example is a lithograph by Fanny Palmer called “Across the Continent, Westward Course of Empire Takes Its Way” (1868).
What these two works have in common is a distortion of perspective (literally and figuratively). They each seem to say that the elements of American civilization, the electrical power line and the railroad, can produce a smaller, more connected world. Thus begins a fantasy of dominance and connectivity that persists in the United States even today.
We cannot ignore the representations of nature in American Progress, when we think about the preservation of America’s national parks. In their own ways, the parks and the painting are representations of an idea, just as much as they are records of a real physical space or experience.