Between Progress and Sublime Reverie: Revisiting 19th-Century America through Digital Art Exhibitions

By Chiara Fralick

Chiara A. Fralick is a graduate student of North American Studies at the University of Cologne. She has focused on art and literatures of the 19th century as well as Indigenous oral histories. Currently she is researching interactions of poetry and land ethics in the environmental humanities. The working title of her Master’s thesis is “Nature Spirited Away: Exploring Ecological Empathy and Native Nations Poetics.” In the fall of 2021, she completed her remote internship at the GHI Washington, DC.

The other day I found myself wondering when I had been to a museum last. I love a good exhibition, so it’s an odd thing for me not to remember. But since the beginning of 2020, like so many of us, I have neither travelled much, nor sought out public places. So something that has made lockdown a little sweeter for me are digital exhibitions. One of my favourite museums to explore online, at the moment, is the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. It has an enormous online collection that not only features various paintings and artefacts, but also provides audio tours, interactive floor plans of the museum’s galleries, educational resources, and a world map to explore the museum’s art by location.

Asher B. Durand, Progress (The Advance of Civilization), VMFA, https://www.vmfa.museum/piction/6027262-192288967/

Under the “Recently Acquired” section for American Art, I found Asher B. Durand’s painting Progress (The Advance of Civilization). Arguably one of his most famous works, it dates back to 1853 and depicts an evening scene speckled with industrial themes. As viewers, we are overlooking a bay engulfed by rolling hills of old-growth forest, distant mountains and a soft cloudscape bathed in golden light from the setting sun. There is a wagon trail that enters from the right, on which cattle are being brought in and goods are carried. A person ploughs their field, smaller boats frequent a stream and houses spring up here and there. Further along the shoreline a coal train passes over a viaduct and even further still, just slightly off centre, we can make out a busy industrial port with steamboats and the smoking chimneys of a larger town and factory. The painting’s composition allows the trail of industrialisation to progress from right to left – east to west – ending with the last ship almost in line with the setting sun. It is a typical and popular visualisation of 19th-century westward movement, predominantly used by a group of landscape painters called the Hudson River School, of which Durand was a leading figure. With this in mind, and considering the title of the painting, it is not surprising that for the longest time, Asher Durand’s Progress had been linked to American expansionism.

When I first spotted the miniature version of Progress, I mistook it at a glance for another one of Durand’s paintings: The Indian’s Vespers. The VMFA’s website works with visual cues, i.e. it gives you a small preview of an artefact or painting and only reveals the title once you move your curser over it. The digital collection thereby cleverly mimics the nature of an actual museum. Yet, The Indian’s Vespers has been in the White House Collection for half a century now, so it is doubtful we will see it in a museum any time soon. Instead, we can view it in the digital library provided by the White House Historical Association, albeit not in the highest resolution. The association was founded by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in 1961, with the “mission to protect, preserve, and provide public access to the rich history of America’s Executive Mansion.” It is definitely another form of online exhibit I would recommend. Their platform includes everything from newspaper clippings and photographs to a vast collection of the White House’s art and decor with detailed descriptions. The Indian’s Vespers is displayed in the Red Room.

Asher B. Durand, The Indian’s Vespers, 1847, The White House, Wikimedia Commons

The resemblance to Progress is indeed remarkable – and at the same time they couldn’t be more different. While Progress is renowned for seemingly capturing the expansionist zeitgeist of 19th-century America to a fault, The Indian’s Vespers is entirely void of any signs of industrialisation. Instead, it highlights the liveliness of nature, creating a dynamic current that runs in concentric lines around the sun. Durand saw it as the artist’s duty to portray “the spiritual beauty with which nature is animate,”[i] which is interesting, because it does not at all seem to sit well with the expansionist theme that so ardently advocates human power over nature. This is where the other movement that influenced the American art scene comes in: German Romanticism. The Hudson River School was closely affiliated with the Düsseldorf school of painting, with some American painters having even studied at the German academy themselves. For the Romantic movement in Germany, then, the revolution of imagination and animation of nature were key ingredients. It seems American painters tried to reconcile the expansionist and romantic side of their country by preserving a version of nature in their paintings that would remain untouched by industrialisation. This inner conflict between advocating the advance of American civilisation and the heartfelt sadness at the destruction of nature has been called the Romantic dilemma of the nineteenth century.

Detail from Asher Durand, Progress, https://www.vmfa.museum/piction/6027262-192288967/

This dilemma is perceivable even in an expansionist masterpiece such as Progress. The clue lies in the painting’s details and might easily be missed if we were looking at Progress in a museum. The painting’s composition is clever indeed – it guides our attention by means of perspective and lighting to the painting’s industrial centre, leaving the front quite literally in the shadows. The VFMA’ website, however, provides close-ups that invite us to reconsider the foreground. In the left detail of the painting we recognise a small group of Indigenous people overlooking the scene, which counterbalances the prominent entry from the right. Once noticed, they are impossible to miss and present the viewer with an alternative perspective and approach to the scene – an alternative lifestyle, even. If we then look at the detailed fragment of the bottom right of the painting, we notice another figure, with walking stick and a large bundle on his back, hiking out of the picture. In the highly-recommendable Panorama article Asher Durand’s Progress Reconsidered, art historian Rebecca Bedell interprets him as “a stand-in for the artist, turning his back on the path of progress.” Who knows, she writes, he might even “climb up to join the Native Americans on their perch.”

Did Durand indeed manage to hide the devil in the detail, so that more than one and a half centuries later, we are starting to see Progress in a different context and read it as anti-expansionist instead of glorifying industrialisation? In fact, ever since the painting was gifted to the VMFA by an anonymous donor, people have started to look at it with fresh perspective and more thorough contextualisation. In an interview with VPM (Virginia’s home for Public Media), the chief curator at the VMFA, Michael Taylor, explains that “this opportunity to provide new context happens when a classic work of art moves from private hands to a space where it can be publicly viewed, analyzed and questioned.” It is a privilege of our digital age that this space does not only exist in museums, but by now also online. I have found the wealth of digital source material for art history invaluable for my own research, especially in these past twenty months or so in which my home suddenly became office, lecture hall, museum and archive at the same time.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is of course only one example of many, many more museums that went online over the past years – and, sadly at least for a while, could be explored exclusively online due to COVID-19. But online exhibits are a fantastic way to continue to integrate art into our education, zoom-classrooms, term papers, presentations or leisure time activities. At the beginning of the first lockdown, PBS even published an article about “19 immersive museum exhibits you can visit from your couch” and as diverse as these online collections may seem, they all have one thing in common: they take us on a journey, entertain us and sometimes – as is the case with Durand’s Progress – challenge us to question long-established convictions.

Literature and Links

Durand, John, The Life and Times of A. B. Durand, (1894), Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York, 2006.

Miller, Angela, “The Empire of the Eye: Landscape Representation and American Cultural Politics, 1825-1875,” Cornell University Press: Ithaca and London, 1993

Miller, Perry, “The Romantic Dilemma in American Nationalism and the Concept of Nature,” The Har- vard Theological Review 48,4 (1955).

Solomon, Peter, “Framing Progress: VMFA To Place $40 Million Asher Durand Painting In Context With Native American Art” WCVE News, Virginia Current, npr news, January 31, 2019. https://vp- m.org/news/articles/3367/framing-progress-vmfa-to-place-40-million-asher-durand-painting-in-context- with.

Asher B. Durand, The Indian’s Vespers by, 1847, The White House, Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Indian’s_Vespers_by_Asher_Brown_Durand,_1847.jpg

Asher B. Durand, Progress (The Advance of Civilization), VMFA, https://www.vmfa.museum/piction/6027262-192288967/


[i] Bedell, Rebecca, “Asher Durand’s Progress Reconsidered,” Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art 5,1 (2019), https://doi.org/10.24926/24716839.1688. p.4.


OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
katharina hering (November 6, 2021). Between Progress and Sublime Reverie: Revisiting 19th-Century America through Digital Art Exhibitions. h r e f. Retrieved July 17, 2024 from https://href.hypotheses.org/2046