A Westward Push


Westward Push1

This painting depicts what is responsible for the creation of my home. Without the westward expansion of the United States, California not become a state in the Union, no one would settle the land beneath my house, and my parents would not have met at Iowa State and fallen in love.

In this chromolithograph, Gast illustrates Columbia (an embodiment of America) leading American settlers into the untamed west, full of wildlife, opportunities, and untouched land. She is driving away Native Americans and building civilization atop their former homes. This painting is a look into more than the physical forms of expansion west, it shows the American attitude towards their conquest.

Instead of a violent incursion into another people’s land, Americans viewed it as a justified expansion of their territory. Columbia carries a schoolbook and is laying telegraph lines alongside a train, indicating that Americans believed they were educating savages and bringing a higher standard of living to barbarians.

Gast aptly named his artwork American Progress, indicating their belief that expanding the US was a natural process. None of the Americans are fighting the natives directly, rather they are pushing flee off the edge of the canvas. To Americans, their expansion was not violent, rather, it was justified. Americans believed themselves the rightful owners of the land, able to administer its possession however their desired, with no regard for the history or fragility of the land.

I abhor the idea of such an act, but I have to come to terms with the fact that it was necessary for America to be what it is today, and for me to be the person I am right now.

[1] Gast, John. American Progress. 1872. Chromolithograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.


4 thoughts on “A Westward Push”

  1. I think the idea of manifest destiny and the right of Americans to expand to the west coast is an awful one as well. Americans created manifest destiny in order to provide themselves with a justification for ruining lives of Native Americans. As we can do nothing about what happened in the past now, I think it is important to think about the title of this piece, American Progress. What is progress? Are we progressing as a country if we ruthlessly demolish another culture for our own benefit? I know good things have consequences sometimes, but a consequence this big puts into question what the exact progression we have made as a society is.

  2. I think the irony is that America is founded upon the doctrine of Equality. That “All men are created equal”, that we all have rights and that there are just some things that the government is not permitted to take away. Yet, equality now differs to such an extent, that equality then is nearly unrecognizable. In the 18th, 19th, and most of the 20th century even, the very core of the American belief system was flawed. “All men are created equal”? Only if you are a white male. Any differentiation in race or sex (ie the Native Americans) were deemed second rate and I think that it is our responsibility to ensure that we as a nation never forget and continue to mourn the mistakes of our countries past.

  3. The irony of the picture doesn’t stop with the lack of equality. The symbol of westward expansion was Columbia, a women. Stereotypical, women are portrayed as mothers, caring and loving. Yet Columbia in this picture represents the oppression and removal of Native Americans from their historic lands.

  4. The composition of this painting is truly remarkable. I specifically love the dichotomy between the lightness and darkness. As civilization pushes forward,in the paining, the artist chose to highlight the sky with bright and angelic colors. Yet, on the other side, Native Americans are running towards the darkness symbolizing no return. Why could we not live peacefully with the Native Americans? Will humans always be so greedy and have only their interest in favor- not others? Progress, I feel, is one sided. As something new comes in, something else has to leave. In this case, the Native Americans were forced off their land. Why can’t progress benefit many- not just one group?

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