Being an environmental minor, I am more interested in environmental aspects rather than interpreting art. Because of this I always find it difficult to form complete analysis of different paintings. But one concept we discussed in class that truly caught my interest was contrasting the progress in industrialization and the destruction of environment. One particular example is George Inness’ The Lackawanna Valley (1855). At first glance this painting may appear uplifting and as an example of advancement in our society. But the more I look at it, the more I become appalled and frustrated. Between the smoke towers that cover the land in pollution and the dozens of tree remains, this painting is clearly portraying the destruction of the environment for the sake of technological advances. In the background you can see the trains passing through the once lush greenery. The land has been completely taken over and the homes of countless animals has been destroyed. So this implies the question: at what point do the costs outweigh the benefits? There is no black and white answer for that question. Even the man portrayed in the painting seems complexed by his emotions. Does he favor the progress or does he detest the destruction of the once peaceful landscape? It is up to the individual viewer to form their own interpretation.
Another complexity is shown in John Gast’s “American Progress” (1872). When first looking at the painting you may feel a sense of peace. But as you take a look at the details in the surrounding and the complex coloration you begin to realize the true theme portrayed by the Indians, settlers, and the woman in focus. Things are actually quite contrary to one’s initial impression.
The painting conveys a vivid sense of the passage of time as the Indians are being forced out of their homeland and replaced by the invasive technology of the foreigners. The people of the land are losing their homes and everything they have known. The animals that once roamed the earth have now become domesticated and forced to work to the bone. It presents the idea of progress coming from the East to the West as the Indians precede Euro-American prospectors. “The painting hints at the past, lays out a fantastic version of an evolving present, and finally lays out a vision of the future. A static picture conveys a dynamic story.” (Martha A. Sandweiss). This strong theme is shown in countless paintings, but this one seems to capture the essence perfectly.
However you interpret the woman in the center, either as an angel, lady liberty, mother nature, etc., she shows little emotion. As she drapes the power lines she displays no look of happiness on her face, nor does she show any morsel of sadness. In her right hand she carries a book while with her left hand she unwinds the power lines. This shows the collaboration of tradition and technology amongst the new land. The ideas embodied in this painting raise important issues. The Gast painting shows how painters could engage large historical questions, cultural stereotypes and political ideas.
Another example of American “progress” is Edward Hicks’ “The Peaceable Kingdom” (1834).
When first looking at the painting you see up close and personal the animals and young children, but as you veer into the background of the painting you see the pilgrims and Indians working to make an agreement. This directs the viewer to think back to when the pilgrims initially came through America and took the land from the Indians. Was there a true agreement? Was this truly beneficial to the land? The humans look with concern, as do the animals. Though people may say animals do not have a true way of showing feeling they do have a way of sorrow, a loss of forestry means a loss of homes. The children seem to be comforting the wide-eyed animals, while most of them have their ears perked again with the eyes wide open as if truly listening with concern. They have a stake in the land just like the Indians do, but they have no voice to speak their opinions. They look onward as the humans decide their fate. It is our responsibility to them and to Mother Nature to preserve and maintain the environment. Does the agreement being portrayed work towards that? Or does it mean the opposite in implying that soon this land will be demolished for another rail road? Similar to the other artists, Hicks hopes to stir emotion in the viewer and make a call for action. Just how effective can art be in moving people to action?
All in all, art is a powerful tool when used the right way. They seem simple upon first glance, but when the details are taken into consideration the true purpose arises and lights a fire in the onlooker. These paintings shown above do just that.