John Gast, American Progress, 1872
I first saw this painting while researching Trail to Destiny, Book 1 of my Wheels of Destiny Trilogy. I found the painting both an inspirational and fascinating piece of historical western art. Not only did I admire its rich and detailed symbolism and the powerful meaning it gave to America’s westward expansion, but I understood the controversy it provoked as well. Although the original artwork is only 12 ¾ x 16 ¾, the painting viewed by most is a much larger reproduction.
Crofutt's Trans-Continental Tourist's Guide, 1872
John Gast, a Brooklyn based painter and lithographer, was commissioned by George Crofutt, the publisher of a popular series of western travel guides. With so many images of the western landscape already in circulation, Crofutt collaborated with Gast to create a new design. Crofutt included an engraving of Gast’s painting in his guidebooks.
In order to appreciate the images depicted in Gast’s painting, one has to realize the connection it had to the concept of “Manifest Destiny,” which was first authored by newspaper editor, John O’Sullivan in 1845, who claimed America had been chosen to carry out the duty of expanding the country all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Gast used his painting to tell the message that the United States was destined to migrate West and to encourage interest in Americans to forge their way across the western frontier. This manifest destiny ideology was common among many early Americans who viewed it as an economic opportunity to start anew.
American Progress conveys a dynamic story. First, let’s take a look at the landscape. The right side represents eastern America with what is assumed to be the Mississippi River and the left side represents western America with the distant Pacific Ocean. Notice the eastern side is much brighter than the western side which grows darker with storm clouds above the snow-capped Rocky Mountains. Reading into that, some viewers might interpret the east as safe and civilized and the west as a dark, uncivilized and untamed wilderness.
Second, take notice of the large, ethereal feminine figure in the middle of the painting. With the “star of the empire” on her forehead, she seems to be leading and lighting the way for the travelers from East to West. In her right hand she carries what most often is interpreted as a book of knowledge and she suspends a length of telegraph cable, depicting educational advancements and technological improvements and inventions.
Next look below her; men follow her on foot and by various methods of transportation – pony express rider on horseback, covered wagon, stagecoach, and steam engine. In the lower right, farmers work the land, a stone house, trees and a split rail fence nearby. On the road in the foreground, three men walk beside a horseman. One carries a shotgun and another holds a miner’s shovel on his shoulder.
As sequential waves of Americans move forward across the plains towards the Rockies and beyond, their images tell a story about the importance of the frontier in American life and of the progress achieved through communication, development, transportation and expansion.
But when we look closely to the left side of the painting, we can see quite another dark and controversial meaning to that story. Bison, wild horses and a bear are seen retreating into the darkness. Several Native Americans look back, one bare-chested male raises a tomahawk and another carries a bow and arrow. A horse drawn travois carries a mother and child. Another woman walks beside it and looking over her shoulder.
In the nineteenth century, the new nation of the United States had great ambitions for its future and westward expansion was a common mindset among most Americans. Looking at “American Progress” today, one can appreciate the bright, positive side of Americans’ enthusiasm and energy for forging a bold path across the West, yet also understand the darker, negative side and sympathize with Native Americans being forced from their native land and way of life they were accustomed to.
Gast’s painting at the time he created it effectively conveyed a history of the past, the innovations of the present and a vision of the future. The original painting is now held by the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles, California.
Inspired by 19th Century Americans traveling across the western frontier, I wrote the first two books published in the Wheels of Destiny trilogy, Trail to Destiny with the heroine traveling on a wagon train & Destiny's Journey with the heroine traveling by stagecoach.