John Gast’s American Progress was painted in 1872. It depicts the westward expansion of the United States. In the painting, settlers and then-novel technology, such as covered wagons, railroads, and horse-drawn carriages move westward, guided by an angel. The angel, a symbolic representation of American ideals and the Manifest Destiny philosophy, carries light towards the western frontier. In the painting the western frontier is represented as dark. It lacks the technology seen in the east, as in lieu of railroads and carriages, there are wild buffalo. Additionally, the painting has a stereotypical depiction of Native Americans.
American Progress will be an excellent addition to a history lesson on Manifest Destiny and Westward Expansion. Students can study the painting and discuss how it reflects popular opinion of the time period. Additionally, they can discuss why the painting may have been designed the way it was (such as the light/dark contrast) and what effects those decisions may have had on viewers.
Integrating materials like American Progress has two benefits. Firstly, it exposes students to different mediums in the study of history. Incorporating artistic work allows students to explore a topic beyond the pages of a textbook. Secondly, it is an excellent way to demonstrate that studying a primary source can be fun and interesting.