Artwork of the Week (April 26): American Progress

American Progress (John Gast, 1871) visualizes the 19th century idea of Manifest Destiny. Columbia, symbolic of the United States, is seen traveling west, dressed like a Greek goddess. Ahead of her tramp white hunters and settlers, and behind her railroads appear out of thin air. On the far left an ominous dark cloud recedes, bringing with it the Native Americans and wild animals (equating the two), pushed out by the bright sunshine of hope and by the intrepid settlers.

Inherent in the painting is a feeling of white supremacy: the white settlers “civilize” the land by exterminating buffalo and native peoples and by taming nature itself, cultivating the land and opening up the way for the railroad and other trappings of industrial capitalist society. Notably, the painting sanitizes the process: the settlers aren’t carrying guns so it’s not clear why the native people are running in fear other than a racist notion that they are simply repelled by a superior culture.

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