Telling a Story

Inness, The Lackawanna Valley, 1855It’s amazing how landscape art can tell a story of American history, without so much as a single word being portrayed in the piece. Here we see The Lackawanna Valley, a piece made by George Inness in 1855. While the meaning may change by our view of things today, at the time this was an image of inspiration and power. America’s landscapes were being cleared, all of the trees being cut down, in order to further expand westward. We see in this image that most of the trees in the foreground have been cut down, most likely to create the railroad for the train that is seen in the mid-ground of this painting. Rather than being saddened by this destruction of forests, people of the day would have been thrilled to see this expansion.

What appears to be a farmer is resting lazily in the foreground in the newly cut pastoral field. This land may very well become farmland for the farmer. The train is at enough distance that its smell and noise do not seem to disturb the restfulness of this man, nor the painting he is resting within. In fact, the train seems to feel like it belongs there. In an odd way, this image seems to suggest a unification of man with nature, than than a destruction of nature by man. The town in the distance becomes an extension of the forest that still remains, and the train drags the town down into the clearing where no manmade structures yet stand. This odd sort of unification is what Americans felt they were achieving at the time, a oneness with their countryside.

The truth is a bit different, of course. Now we see that this blatant destruction of forests is not so unifiable. railroads used up so much wood that during the time of this painting the U.S. had fewer trees than it has ever had or ever would have. Railroads disturbed the natural environments of animals that before had had no interaction with humanity in such a way. These railroads, the trains, and the corporations backing them caused much more unrest than the peacefulness we see in the painting. Of course, that’s because this painting doesn’t tell that side of the story. The story this painting tells is one of progress, one of achievement, one of taming the countryside, one of the manifest destiny that Americans were going through at the time.

It’s just so interesting how much of a story can be told through a simple painting of a landscape, and how biased that story can be. We don’t get the full picture, only what is presented to us within that picture (in this case, the painting). Everything else is hidden away where we can’t see it, much like those train companies must have wanted it. Maybe it’s blatantly obvious (and not very shocking) then, that George Inness received a commission from (guess who?) the president of the new Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad to paint The Lackawanna Valley for advertising purposes. About as one-sided as it gets.

———————

Upon further studies into this piece, I found this interesting tidbit of information:

“The artist and the industrialist clashed several times over the composition. Mr. Phelps wanted the painting to show all four of the company’s locomotives and to prominently display the company’s initials. The two reached a compromise. Mr. Inness painted only one locomotive. To compensate, he added wisps of smoke in the distance to suggest other engines. He refused to put the company’s initials in the painting.” – http://thetimes-tribune.com/news/painting-ordered-by-railroad-shows-valley-s-green-past-1.1175948

It seems the only thing saving this piece from having the industrial, manmade world completely dominating the scene was the artist’s wishes against doing so. Thanks to Inness, we get more of a unification than a domination message.

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