American Progress by John Gast (1872)

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Before reading this piece, I encourage you to analyze the painting. What do you see? What story is being told? Why is the woman carrying wire? What is happening to the people on the left and the right? Look at the colors used on each side. Look at the animals. What is the difference in reactions from the animals? Why is that?

Painted in 1872 by artist and lithographer John Gast, American Progress is a depiction of Manifest Destiny. Manifest Destiny is the idea that America was ordained by God himself to settle all the land on North America from sea to shining sea, Essentially, it was a justification for westward expansion. This painting is one of the most famous from American History and is consistently used in the Advanced Placement United States History exams from the College Board.

This painting is one of my personal favorites of all time. It tells a rather accurate story of Manifest Destiny. If you look at the top right, there is what appears to be a harbor city or something of the sorts, which in my opinion represents European style living. In the eyes of the author, and likely many Americans at the time, is viewed as an objectively good thing. If you take a look at the top left, you will see darkness. Perhaps this is meant to symbolize the Native American’s need for “enlightenment,” in the opinion of the artist. Looking at the animals, you’ll notice that the more livestock and domesticated animals are relaxed and calm with the movement westward but the wild animals such as the bear and the deer are more frightful as they are being push out of their homes. Similar to the people on the left and the people on the right. The ones on the right, the Americans are expanding westward which is causing the people on the left, the Native Americans, to be pushed out of their homes. The woman is also carrying a book, which in my opinion is the artist attempting to claim the Native Americans as uneducated and showing that Americans can educate them with public schooling. Lastly you can see that the woman is stringing telegraph wire behind her. This, in my opinion, represents the spread of technology westward, as well as a more literal interpretation of America spreading telegraph wires across the land.

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