Primary source Analysis

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“American Progress” by John Gast, 1872

Link to Painting: Link (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

John Gast painted this picture in 1872 for George Crofutt, the publisher of a popular series of western travel guides. The picture has become an iconic visual representation of western expansion in the United States.

Your assignment is to analyze this painting. You should consider taking the following steps to help you to write about the painting before you begin the assignment:

  • List the people, objects and activities that you see.
  • Write one sentence that describes what the artist was trying to paint
  • Make a list of the artistic choices – color, character, objects – in the painting.

Based on your analysis, please write an essay that addresses the following questions:

1. What did the artist want us to think about American movement westward? What is the message that the artist is trying to convey?

2. What do we need to know about 19th Century history in order to understand this painting?

3. What kinds of artistic choices did the artist make to convey his message about expansion?

4. How is this picture related the idea of Manifest Destiny and Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis”?

5. How does the artist’s depiction of westward expansion relate to other primary and secondary sources about expansion that we have considered in the course? Please discuss the painting in relationship to at least one other source that we have used in class, from either current or previous weeks. You can use a source that supports what the artist is trying to say, or demonstrates that the artist leaves out important information.

6. Please pose at least one discussion question about this painting. What do you think is important to talk about with regard to the artist’s portrayal of expansion?

Responses will be graded according to the following criteria:

  • Does the response address all the questions posed?
  • Does the response demonstrate that the student has done a close and careful analysis?
  • Does the response offer a thoughtful engagement with the painting?
  • Does the response demonstrate a concerted effort to think about the significance of the painting and its relationship to course topics?
  • Does the response make sense? Are the ideas within it clearly communicated?
  • Is the response written in essay form, with a thesis, a set of paragraphs that each address a distinct argument in support of the thesis, and a conclusion?
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