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Framing Progress: VMFA To Place $40 Million Asher Durand Painting In Context With Native American Art

Asher Durand, 1853: "Progress (The Advance of Civilization)"
VMFA received Asher Durand's 1853 painting "Progress (The Advance of Civilization)" from an anonymous donor. For most of its existence, it has remained in private collections, except for its inclusion in exhibits in 1853, 1981, 1997-8, 2008 and 2018.The painting is valued at $40 million, making it the most valuable work of art that the VMFA has ever received. There are plans to hang the painting alongside two pieces from the museum's Native American collection. Photo: Kate Prunkl/WCVE

In 1853, Asher Durand was commissioned to create a monumental painting of the American landscape. Valued at $40 million, the work that resulted has been studied in art history classes but has been in private hands for years and mostly unavailable for public viewing. Now, it’s been acquired by The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Peter Solomon has more for Virginia Currents.


At first glance, Asher Durand’s Progress (The Advance of Civilization) is a striking image of a bucolic scene: the luminous sunrise, the scenery of mountains and woods and a winding river. With a closer look, stories begin to emerge in the four-by-six foot painting.  

Michael Taylor:  Great painting, right?

Michael Taylor, the VMFA’s Chief Curator and Deputy Director for Art and Education, points to the lower left hand corner of the painting, where three American Indians are standing in a dead forest surrounded by fallen and blasted trees.

Taylor:  What you have in the foreground, are Native Americans looking out over a vista that includes a sort of shining city with smokestacks and modern technology and on the other side are sort of farmers moving livestock through the landscape.

The Native Americans are witnessing the loss of their land and their way of life. Taylor says that the farmers depicted on the opposite side of the painting will also have to contend with dramatic changes.

Michael Taylor:  And I think it's interesting that you get sort of horse drawn carriages going down roads that have telegraph poles and you know that within a few decades those are gonna be highways with motorcars.

This detail of the lower left hand corner of  Progress shows three Native Americans standing among dead trees, looking out at what was probably their homeland. Their gaze is directed at an industrial city on the horizon. (Photo: Kate Prunkl/WCVE)

As your eye follows the imagery to the industrial horizon, you notice the technological advances in buildings from log cabins to factories and in transportation from horses to canals to railroads, which, according to Taylor, have a special significance.

Taylor:  This is painted in 1853 and what's in between is a train, a steam locomotive. And so the metaphor here is that it's going to be the train that's going to take America from a rural past to a modern urban present.

A railroad executive named Charles Gould, who was also a collector and arts patron, awarded Durand the commission to paint Progress. Shortly afterwards, he became the Treasurer of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad.

Taylor:  The railroad industry at that time was seen in a negative light. It was associated with bringing, you know, gambling and prostitution and changing American cities forever. And this was sort of bringing it into the high art realm and saying, actually, this is the future, it's going to happen. Let’s embrace it.

Durand’s painting presents both the pros and the cons of that future.

Taylor:  What Durand does though, is he presents what his patron wanted, but he also shows the damage, the fallout that happens with this progress. You see blasted trees in the landscape. You see the Native Americans whose future is bleak now with this progress.

This detail of the lower right hand corner of Progress shows farmers and horse-drawn wagons juxtaposed with telegraph wires, an indication that life is going to change. In the distance is the industrial city with factories and smokestacks. Connecting the old and new realities is the steam locomotive.  (Photo: Kate Prunkl/WCVE)

Another curator at the VMFA is Leo Mazow. He describes Durand as one of the key figures of the nineteenth century American art movement known as the Hudson River School, known for romantic paintings of the American wilderness .

Leo Mazow: S o when the patron Charles Gould sought out Asher Durand, he knew exactly what he was doing.

As an industrialist, Mazow says, Charles Gould had a particular understanding about the relationship between industry and nature.

Mazow:  I think we want to think that opposites can commingle, that progress is not all bad, that industry can coexist with nature, and the fact is, in order to get to nature, we have to kill a bit of it.

The natural beauty of the American frontier, which Gould played a role in depleting, could be preserved for posterity in works of art.

Mazow:  The frontier was getting smaller and smaller, but it could always exist on large canvases, so it's little wonder that some of the most important landscape paintings from the mid-nineteenth century were commissioned by railroad executives.

War Shirt, made sometime between 1850 and 1880 by an unknown artisan, will be displayed next to Progress. It's created from a variety of materials including elk or antelope hide. porcupine quills and horsehair . From the Robert and Nancy Nooter Collection  

Durand’s painting can be interpreted in many ways. A Native American person may see it differently than an art historian or wealthy collector.

Brad Brown:  Well, it’s a beautiful painting, but my eyes are drawn to the three Indians on the left overlooking the river and the village and the town that’s down below.

Brad Brown is an enrolled member of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe of Virginia.

Brown:  I'm wondering what they’re thinking, because they’re certainly not thinking Progress , which is the name of the painting. They're probably looking down and seeing their fishing grounds and their hunting grounds and probably where their village was a being taken over by this European onslaught and I would guess that they're kind of sad.

For Brown, the painting is representative of manifest destiny, an idea popular among mid-nineteenth century democrats and others who wanted to settle the West, that American expansion across the continent was inevitable and divinely justified.

Brown:  I think it’s more the evil thoughts of men. They thought that, that these people that moved in here just had the, some God given, right to eliminate a whole race of people.

War Town Dress, by artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith in 2002, will also be displayed next to Progress. It's a mixed media work featuring the form of a war dress superimposed on top of newspaper articles to make a statement to about the treatment of Native Americans.

The VMFA originally hung Progress on a wall by itself. There are plans to place it next to a couple of pieces from the museum’s Native American collection: a late nineteenth century  Crow War Shirt and  War Torn Dress by artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. Curator Leo Mazow explains that Smith frequently takes headlines from newspapers and paints Native American forms on top of them. 

Mazow:  In this instance, a war dress on top of those headlines that call attention to gross inequities with how Native Americans are treated.

Again, curator Michael Taylor: 

Taylor:  I think it's a fascinating dialogue and one that Progress has never been put in. Progress has always been shown, in the context of Hudson River School painting, which makes sense, but this juxtaposition with Native American objects asks new questions of the painting.

Taylor adds 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.  

For Virginia Currents, I’m Peter Solomon, WCVE News.

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