Stabbing Westward: An Analysis of John Gast’s “American Progress”

American Progress

John Gast’s “American Progress”


by Jake Colberg
In the nineteenth century the young new nation of the United States had great aspirations for its future. As a result, westward expansion was an appealing thought, and the idea of manifest destiny was a common mindset among early Americans. With this ideology so common among people at the time, the West wasn’t only thought of by some as a great opportunity to start anew. It was also viewed as a serious economic opportunity for people seeking to exploit the hopeful thoughts of others. As a result of this, propaganda began surfacing portraying the West and the American expansion west in a very positive light. John Gast’s painting “American Progress” is an example of this (it was printed in traveling guides at the time), and – through different displays of symbolism – it portrays Western expansion by Americans as a glorious and righteous thing. In reality, however, expansion may not have been as just as the painting makes it seem.

The painting is set on an American landscape, with the right half of the painting representing eastern America, and the left half of the painting representing western America. The first thing to notice about the painting is the variations in light seen when comparing the east and the west. The rightmost edge of the painting is bright, but as the painting shifts left it begins to grow darker, with the furthest left edge being marked by a foreboding sky adorned with storm clouds. Similarly, the gentle rolling hills of the east give way to jagged mountains as the painting moves left into the west. From these landscape features alone, Gast creates the idea that the East is warm and welcoming, while the West is dark and ominous. This creates a platform which, upon Gast’s introduction of characters into the painting, plays a great deal on the viewer’s emotions.

The next thing to notice is the dominating figure in the middle of the painting. The figure is a woman who resembles an angel, and the light aforementioned clearly exudes from her. She appears to be moving westwards, illuminating the way as she goes. Amy Greenberg writes: “It is the benign domestic influence of [her] allegorical figure, […] Gast seems to indicate, that is responsible for the smooth and uplifting transformation of wilderness into civilization.”[1] When looking at the painting, this claim certainly seems to hold true. The painting features covered wagons, then stagecoaches, then trains, all moving west. This presents the idea of technological advancement being brought further West as American folk continue to settle the frontier, a thought which was very widespread at the time.

By incorporating these common ideals into “American Progress,” Gast immediately established common ground with any American viewing the painting at the time. By creating the heavenly woman in the center, who bears the innovative telegraph wire in her left hand, Gast introduces the main argument of the painting: the idea that it was the heavenly duty of Americans to expand the country all the way to the Pacific Ocean. This idea surely resonated with people at the time. This aggressive use of pathos is most likely the main reason many Americans at the time connected with the argument the painting presented.

The opinions people shared about American Indians in the nineteenth century played a significant role in the perspective people took regarding the Indians’ inclusion in the image. In the nineteenth century Indians were thought of as mere savages, and driving them out of an area of land may have been considered an example of cleansing in some American’s eyes. Looking at “American Progress” today, however, one can’t help but feel sympathy for the Indians shown fleeing on the left side of the painting. Rather than coming across as savages fleeing from the progress settlers were bringing with them, they appear to be troubled people fleeing in a desperate attempt to maintain the way of life they were accustomed to. Similarly, the farmers depicted at the bottom of the painting may be viewed in a negative light today as well. Rather than being brave individuals taming the land, they might instead be viewed as selfish individuals destroying the habitat and forcing animals out of their natural homes.

Overall, however, “American Progress” presented a very effective argument at the time it was created. John Gast effectively played off the American emotions present at the time regarding patriotism and manifest destiny, and by incorporating American innovations such as telegraph lines into the image he paired the idea of expanding westward settlement with the idea of innovation. The painting truly “hints at the past, lays out a fantastic version of an evolving present, and finally lays out a vision of the future,” and though it may lack in some aspects of logical argument, it presents a great example in which “a static picture conveys a dynamic story.”[2]

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[1] Greenberg, Amy S. Manifest Manhood and the Antebellum American Empire. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2005.

[2] Sandweiss, Martha A. “John Gast, American Progress, 1872.” Picturing US History. City University of New York.

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