I recently visited a living history park 4 miles outside of Denver, a 12 acre land with the oldest house and a small farm. It served as a resting spot on the intersecting trails during the mid 1800s, when many were crossing from the East to the West. As I gazed at one of the stage coaches in the dilapitated barn, the words manifest destiny came to mind.
Manifest destiny was the collective belief that Americans were meant to scatter across the West with the mindset of fulfilling their dreams of a better life. History will tell us that it was tainted by the fact that it took a tragic turn with the violent upending of Native Americans from their lands.
Yet, that’s not what I want to talk about, I’m addressing how it influenced artists of that time to create beautiful masterpieces of sweeping landscapes, stunning sunrises and idyllic life.
No one championed the idea of manifest destiny more so than artist Albert Bierstadt. His pieces brought attention to the Western regions, skillfully depicting serene natural settings of majestic mountain ranges, woodland animals and awe-inspiring skies; all used to beckon the viewers forth.
Yet, the best symbolic example of manifest destiny is John Gast’s American Progress, where he depicts America’s female figure, Columbia, leading people across the expanse of the West; with her book of American ideals in hand. It’s not exactly an easy painting to view since you can see she is clearing a path through Native Americans and animals for the ‘dreamers’ to continue.
English artist Thomas Cole found the American countryside appealing unlike many of his colleagues. He may not have been inspired by manifest destiny, yet he was amused with the idea of where America as a society was headed. Cole focused on revealing the unique qualities of America’s natural settings.
Having reached the Western most part of the US, the belief of manifest destiny had died out long ago, so has paintings of realistic landscapes. Not that there haven’t been any landscape artists. The more recent landscape artists incorporate abstract elements.
As dark as that part of history was, it was hard to imagine how, many Americans managed to cross over the Rocky Mountains with horses attached to this huge stage coach. All for a chance on a new life, a new adventure.