Asher Durand, Progress (1853)

Asher Durand is best known for his landscape paintings, and in particular for his iconic Kindred Spirits. And though most landscape paintings do not belong to the narrative style of painting, some clearly represent a melding of the world of nature and the province of humanity. The spirits of poetry and painting are prominently featured in Kindred Spirits, and the nineteenth-century idea of social improvement finds expression in Duran’s Progress painting.

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On the left, Native Americans in their "savage state" look out onto the spectacle of progress in America

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Leading out of the wilderness on a path from the lower right, stagecoaches and cattle drivers follow the road of the Progress winding upward toward the railroad crossing a bridge.

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In the distance, industrial progress merges into the sea, mountains and sky.

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The nineteenth-century idea of technological progress was succinctly stated in an introduction to the official report to the French exposition universelle of 1855:

Progress is the application of technology for the moral and physical improvement of the human race.

The concept of physical improvement seems clear enough: better communications, dependable electric power, entertainment, and much more. The moral improvement, in the secular dimension of the concept of morality, meant the reduction, amelioration, or cure of human suffering. Medicine, hygiene, and all other improvements made possible by technical progress constituted one of the major components in the belief in the moral dimension of progress in Duran’s time.

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