Monday, February 8, 2010

Manifest Destiny in Art

The current generation of students seem to be lacking many basic visual literacy skills. Due largely to the rapid nature of communication and technology today, young learners don't seem to focus on any one thing long enough to consider the all of the potential learning opportunities that are available. Instead, it is more like, "OK I've seen that, what's the next thing?"

Doing some research for an activity on manifest destiny and westward expansion the past week or so I ran into this piece of art titled American Progress, painted by John Gast in 1872.

Without taking a few minutes to look at it closely it doesn't look like much more than an angel floating over an Old West landscape. But, upon further review there is much to be learned in this particular piece of artwork.

The figure floating above the scene is not an angel, but rather Lady Columbia, a symbol for The United States. She is moving over an allegorical map of America, from east to west. On her forehead she wears the star of empire. In her right arm she carries not the Bible, but a school book, bringing education to the uncivilized West. In her left hand she strings telegraph wire, connecting the reunited United States. Railroads run behind her as well as stagecoaches and westward pioneers.

Uncivilized Indians and wild animals such as bears, wolves, and buffalo flee before her enlightening atmosphere. The Indians have left their teepees and the bones of the buffalo behind. To the East the skies are clear, representing the influence of civilization and technology, but to the west, over the Rocky Mountains, where the white man has barely reached, it is dark and unsettled.

Just behind Lady Columbia settlers have built a cabin and are plowing the ground to raise crops. Just under her are frontiersmen, miners, and hunters, on foot and on horseback reaching the border between civilization and wilderness.

From the late 1840s, just after the Mexican-American War, to the the 1880s, when the Wild West was finally being tamed, this idea of Manifest Destiny was portrayed in numerous pieces of artwork. Most take on a theme of progress and are heavily influenced by romanticism. Much can be learned by viewing these unique primary sources, and when you stop and take the time to look closely, they can speak to you as well as any written document.


  1. Nice piece. I'm a 5th grade teacher in Flagstaff AZ and I'm planning a unit on the Westward Movement using art and music. This was the first article I found. I grew up in Garrard County, just a few miles upstream from you.

  2. In looking for links on today's westward movement and building my next article as a member of Biltmore Who's Who, I came across this painting by John Gast of Manifest Destiny and was thrilled as it is perfect to define Hatti's growth and ambitious trails as an Antebellum. Taming is sometimes an experienced leader and I look at the civi war history and turn to Robert Lee for explanations...All this for a trip to South Carolina one day..whimsical thinking

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