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How “American Progress” Painting Reflect How It is That the American Past Was Imagined at a Later Time

Updated April 19, 2022
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How “American Progress” Painting Reflect How It is That the American Past Was Imagined at a Later Time essay

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“American Progress”, a painting by John Gast, is an allegory for manifest destiny (John Gast). The painting is about the confrontation of the Natives Americans and the westward-expanding Americans in the nineteenth century. This expansion is mostly known as “Manifest Destiny”, a term created by journalist John L. O’Sullivan in 1845. In his article about “Annexation” he wrote: ”our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us”(Pratt, p.6). The painting was ordered by George Crofutt, publisher of a fashionable western travel guide series, in which “American Progress” was published widely afterwards (John Gast). The first thing that catches our eyes in the painting is the light contrast in between the left and the right side. This contrast makes a dualistic representation between the natives in the west and the Americans in the east. This strong contrast reminded me of the concept of “others” and how throughout the history, especially in the time of colonization, this concept was used to devalue and segregate a nation or a group. Thus, this piece of art represents an important event in the history of America and opens a window for us towards American’s 19th century society and their point of view about “Manifest Destiny”. According to Foucault, a French philosopher, historian of ideas and a social theorist, “discourse does not only reproduce, but it also produces what is considered “true” at the time” (Carabine, p.268). Therefore, I believe finding out more about this piece of art and what it represents about American’s expansion connects us to the time of the painting’s ideology and belief or, as Foucault calls it, the American’s “true” of that time. The “true” of that time can involve American’s religious beliefs, segregation and stereotyping of Native Americans.

To study the painting, we need first to understand the symbols and their implications. The painting depicts a feminine figure, or as Thrush calls her “the spirit of Progress” (Thrush, p.554), floating in the center as a goddess to indicate the religious support for the expansion. As she floats she leads farmers, settlers, and travelers from the east to the west. She is followed by men of various trades on different modes of transportations: horseback, covered wagon, carriage, steam engine, and barefoot. We can see in the painting that Americans who contribute in the progress towards the west belong to all different social classes. Probably, Gast wanted to indicate that everyone, either poor or rich, have the right to move west begin their new life. The dominance of the Progress, not only by size, but also by giving her a goddess illuminant look, in the painting can suggest superiority of the immigrants over the Native Americans. With a school book in her right hand, Progress is depicted as the carrier of knowledge that connects the east- the Atlantic Ocean- to the west- the Pacific Ocean- with the telegraph coil that she carries. I believe that Gast by including the two oceans in the east and west reflects the idea of continental expansion under a united nation- a belief in religious duty to expand the nation – and stretch from ocean to ocean (Colberg). There are some other symbols I noticed in the picture that might not be as strong as the ones I mentioned above, but I believe they are worth mentioning. We see the sun, which is just rising in the east, from the back of the immigrants, and as we all know, it will travel all the way to the west in a course of a day. Keeping in mind that the light in the scene cannot be a just rising sun’s light, I believe it was intentional, and there is a meaning behind it. It is as if the sun is following the immigrants to the west providing them with light and they travel westward casting no shadow behind, in fact if we notice we can see the shadow of travelers in front of them. Gast in this painting has reflected the religious believe of Americans in the 19th century and the idea of expansion from ocean to ocean.

The contrast of the Americans and the Natives Americans divides the painting into two sides. The clash of two sides can be seen as the clash of darkness- the godless Natives- and sunshine- the goddess Americans- guided by Progress. Also I believe, Gast tries to capture the civilized face of the east by including the boats and the Brooklyn Bridge on the right side, the trains moving westward and telegraph’s coil that Progress unfolds as she floats towards the west. John Crevecoeur claims that “settlers bring the best of European qualities to this new continent and leave the worst behind” (Crevecoeur, p.1). Therefore it can be argued that the boats can also be an indication that settlers of the eastern continent are originally from civilized Europe to put them in contrast of primarily living style of Native Americans. There are some aspects of the natives and how Gast pictures them that are noticeable. The tents in the far away direction in the middle of the painting contrasts with the wooden newly-built house, in the mid-right side that is built by the recently arrived settlers. Another contrast that can be noticed is the primary weapons of natives versus the gun owned by settlers, and the fact that Natives are depicted as half-naked are some to mention. All of these contrasts can be a reflection of the existing views about the Native Americans. For example, the native’s clothing can be connected to those days belief about natives being godless and sinful. Wyss in his book,” Writing Indians: Literacy, Christianity, and Native Community in Early America”, introduces us to Puritanism view on Native Americans. Here is a quote from an early Native Americans converting to Christianity: “before I heard of Gog… many evil things did my heart work, many thoughts I had in my heart, I wished for riches, I wished to be a witch, …, and many such other evil were in my heart” (Wyss, p.26). Putting it all together, we can conclude that in this painting, we see a strong contrast between settlers- goddess- and the Natives- godless – side. One moves from east to west, spreading light in the land they enter, and the other fading into the darkness along with the wild animals.

Moreover, depicting the Natives more negatively might suggest the idea of justification of what was followed by the expansion- the conflicts and wars between the east settlers and the natives. Garrison provides us a better image of how some in the 19th century Americans would consider the idea of expanding and forcing the Native American’s to withdraw and retreat from the lands they were living on. “Like Wiley, many in the county believed that the only solution to their problem was in removing the Indians, either alive or dead. Many also believed that the soldiers at Ft. Humboldt had not done enough to prevent Indian raids on settlements and were not competent to prosecute the war on the Indians to their satisfaction.”(Garrison, p.8). The closest look at the painting takes our attention to Natives at the most left side who look back over their shoulders as they flee towards the darkness, almost the same way the animals, including the bear and the dogs, look behind. By devaluing or even dehumanizing the Natives in his painting and illustrating the settlers with the positive characteristics mentioned above, Gast wants to give a less brutal image of the westward expansion, and justify the settlers as the carrier of all the goods and pioneers of technology.

In the Gast’s version of expansion, “American Progress”, no troops, nor signs of conflict or war can be marked. Probably, he wants to emphasize on the belief that it was a destiny that was not only accepted and believed by Americans, but also by Native Americans, and therefore we see no resistance. We see no government surveying and giving away free land to settlers. What we see is farmers who have started working on the lands they just have arrived on the right side of the painting. Everything goes smoothly and with ease, without government and troops being involved. Lastly, the relaxed face and posture of the immigrants moving west with pride seemed ironic too me, especially when I noticed one of them has a pipe in his mouth with no sign of attention to Native Americans who look back with horror over their shoulders. Another thing that caught my attention was that the Native Americans and animals are looking back and up as they retreat, as if they are looking at the floating feminine figure above not the settlers- this is more clear if you look at the most left-side native and the bear. I believe this can be important because it indicates natives are confronting God’s will, if we see the feminine figure as a goddess, and not the settlers. All the mentioned details above suggest that Gast’s “American Progress” portrayed 19th century traditional views of expansion, and that “civilization’s victory is inevitable and right” (Dippie, p.6). I believe the way Native Americans and bison retreat as settlers move westward, is a misinterpretation of Manifest Destiny in American history.

In the paintings upright, a city with all signs of civilization is an indication of progress and pride, as mentioned above, whereas in the background, a group of Natives who appear to be dancing. This stereotypical, primitive and animalistic movements are described by Mihesuah as “spasmodic” (American Indians, p.17).The background pointy mountains, which lies beneath the dark clouds stands in contrast with the nearly smooth and flat landscape in the east. Also, the water at the top left-hand corner does not appear as calm as the water in the East does. Landscape paintings, the contrast of smooth waters or landscapes with sharp mountains covered by storms, can imply the wilderness of the west, versus the calm and under controlled east (Christadler, p.111). By painting the east as civilized and the West as savage, probably Gast is claiming superiority of the settlers, as it was believed by the Americans in the 19th century.

Knowing all these backgrounds of nineteenth-century helps us to understand Gast’s interpretation and his effort to convey all these religious, and social believes that led to his painting. Gast creates a strong contrast between the civilized Americans originated from Europe- believed to be the center of science and culture- and the Native Americans to segregate them and label them as “others” to justify the brutality of westward expansion. Also the feminine figure in the middle reflects the religious belief about expansion. Depicting Americans with pride and confidence and relax gestures and the horror and fearful Native American as they flee can be another indication of 19th century American’s belief in the God-given right to expand their land. He also defends from the idea of it being a destiny that no one wants to fight against by illustrating it in a peaceful manner, hiding its brutal side. Thus, I believe “American Progress” is more a reflection of traditional views rather than the depicting the historical events.

Work Cited

  1. “American Progress.” MWeb Problem, collections.theautry.org/mwebcgi/mweb.exe?request=record%3Bid
  2. “American Indians.” Google Books, Google, books.google.de/books?hl=de&lr=&id=5FH5mRF_aY8C&oi=fnd&pg=PA9&d#v=onepage&q&f=false.
  3. Carabine, J. (2001). Unmarried Motherhood 1830-1990: A Genealogical Analysis. In: M.
  4. Wetherell, S. Taylor and S. Yates, ed., Discourse as Data, 1st ed. [online] SAGE, p.268.
  5. Christadler, M. (1989). Romantic Landscape Painting in America. In: T. Gaehtgens and H. Ickstadt, ed., American Icons, 1st ed. Chicago: Chicago Press
  6. Colberg, Jake. “Stabbing Westward: An Analysis of John Gast’s ‘American Progress.’” America Through the Ages, America Through the Ages, 30 Nov. 2012, 2012english120.wordpress.com/2012/11/30/stabbing-westward-an-analysis-of-john-gasts-american-progress/.
  7. Crevecoeur, John. What Is an American? web.utk.edu/~mfitzge1/docs/374/Creve_brief.pdf.
  8. Dippie, Brian W. “Photographic Allegories and Indian Destiny.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History, vol. 42, no. 3, 1992, pp. 40–57. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4519498.
  9. Garrison , Jim. Humboldt’s Uncivil War . humboldt-dspace.calstate.edu/bitstream/handle/10211.3/131778/Garrison_Jim_Barnum_2014_f.pdf?sequence=1.
  10. John Gast. American Progress. 1872, Autry museum.
  11. Pratt, Julius W. “The Origin of ‘Manifest Destiny.’” The American Historical Review, vol. 32, no. 4, 1927, pp. 795–798. JSTOR, jstor.org/stable/1837859
  12. Thrush, Coll. “The Oxford Handbook of American Indian History.” Google Books, Google, books.google.de/books?id=IK6NCwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&hl=de&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=snippet&q=american%20progress&f=false.
  13. Wyss, Hilary E. “Writing Indians: Literacy, Christianity, and Native Community in Early America.” Google Books, books.google.com/books?id=xCLX3ag-uosC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=snippet&q=lust%20and%20sin&f=false.
How “American Progress” Painting Reflect How It is That the American Past Was Imagined at a Later Time essay

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