What Thomas Carlyle in 1829 called the Age of Machinery – later renamed the Industrial Revolution – radically altered conventional modes of being and marked a turning point in man’s relationship with his environment. New production systems delivered an abundance of goods for consumption, but in the process natural resources were depleted, water and soil polluted, whilst fumes contaminated the air.
The Victorian Age identified progress with engineering and the railway was its iconic technology. The train’s momentum changed the traditional rhythm of life, annihilating previous perceptions of time and space. The railway was both agent and symbol of connectivity. Speed eradicated distance, but this development came at a price.
J.M.W. Turner’s 1844 masterpiece “Rain, Steam and Speed” expressed the thrill of celerity. Yet, the painting contained a threat. It seemed to raise a question: would mankind be able to keep control over the monstrous power it had unleashed? “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us,” Henry David Thoreau replied in Walden (1854).
The new concept of a World Exhibition celebrated industrialism and international trade. First defined in the setting of London’s Great Exhibition, such fairs were repeated in other capitals in order to display the hardware of technological advance.
The organizers of the 1851 Exhibition were convinced that their undertaking would enhance a deeper understanding between nations. Their aim was to promote mankind’s forward march through peaceful competition. The official report to the 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris summarized the concept of progress as the “application of technology for the moral and physical improvement of the human race.”
Advances in medicine, hygiene and public health were made possible thanks to research-based ingenuity and inventiveness. Progress was therefore more than mere material upgrade: it was a moral imperative. Be it in Europe or America, its driving force was the conviction that scientists and engineers would serve the betterment of society.
It was against the backdrop of this firm belief system that the New York stockbroker and railroad executive Charles Gould approached the prominent landscape painter Asher B. Durand and commissioned a painting to add his private collection. In 1853, the artist put the final touches to his canvas “Progress (The Advance of Civilization).” Its message puzzled contemporary art critics.
Durand was born in August 1796 in Jefferson Village, New Jersey, the son of a watchmaker and silversmith. After his apprenticeship, he entered in 1823 into partnership with the engraver and medalist Charles Cushing Wright and managed the firm’s New York office.
A skillful craftsman, he was asked in 1823 by John Trumbull – the “Painter of the Revolution” – to produce an engraving of his 1817 canvas “Declaration of Independence.” The result cemented Durand’s reputation as one of the nation’s prime engravers. He and Wright were in 1825 amongst the first fifteen co-founders of the New York Drawing Association (later renamed National Academy of Design). Asher served as its President from 1845 to 1861.
Along with his brother Cyrus, Durand set up a banknote engraving company. It was a perfect partnership as Cyrus invented machines for mechanical drawing and Asher engraved the currency. His vignettes of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington were used for the nation’s first postage stamps which became valid for use on July 1, 1847.
Merchant Luman Reed was an art lover who had assembled a fine collection of European and American paintings which he displayed in a specially designed two-room gallery in his house on Greenwich Street, Lower Manhattan. In 1835 he commissioned Durand to paint his portrait. Encouraged by his patron, Asher decided to devote himself to portrait painting. He established a studio in the city of New York to be close to a clientele that included several prominent political figures.
In 1837, he accompanied his friend and fellow artist Thomas Cole on a sketching expedition to Schroon Lake in the Adirondacks Mountains. Overwhelmed by its beauty, he began concentrating on landscape painting. He associated himself with the Hudson River School, a group of artists who took inspiration from European painters such as Claude Lorrain, John Constable and J. M. W. Turner.
Like so many of his contemporaries, Durand felt compelled to travel to Europe to study the Old Masters. Departing in April 1840 on his only foreign journey, he spent a year touring Britain, France, the Low Countries and Italy, copying masterpieces in Europe’s greatest galleries. His most critical encounter took place in London when he met the American expatriate Charles Robert Leslie who showed him landscapes and sketches by John Constable for whose estate Leslie was the executor (in 1843 he also published an estimated biography of his friend).
Flourishing as a distinct category of expression since the second quarter of the seventeenth century, European landscape painting had taken opposite directions. Artists like Claude Lorrain went in for “ideal” views of an eternal Arcadia (with a sense of nostalgia evoked by ancient ruins and figures in togas), while Dutch masters of the genre closely observed their natural surroundings (the word landscape is borrowed directly from the Dutch landschap).
Both trends produced their own virtuosi. Jacob van Ruysdael’s ability to capture the effects of light and movement was widely admired and he was a major inspiration to British painters, including John Constable. Claude Lorrain also influenced English landscape artists. Turner was especially indebted to him. Durand would have been alert to this continuous landscape tradition in its contrasting approaches.
On his return from Europe, he began making seasonal trips in the hills along the Hudson River, then in the Adirondacks and New England, to sketch in pencil and oil directly from natural motifs. He is remembered for his detailed portrayals of trees, rocks and foliage which he would later integrate into comprehensive woodland compositions.
Despite his espousal of naturalism in art, many of his paintings reflect conventional landscape modes based on the French and Dutch antecedents which he had admired and copied during his tour abroad. Durand was one of a generation of painter-pilgrims who traveled from America to Paris, London or Amsterdam to worship at the shrine that was European art. The intensity and impact of the experience would remain with him throughout his working life.
Financier and industrialist Charles Gould had moved from Connecticut to the city of New York at some time during the 1840s. An ambitious rich man, he was keen to establish himself in the upper ranks of society. Having purchased a home on Madison Square, he indulged in a life of luxury and made his presence felt. From the early 1850s onward he began taking an interest in building an art collection. Acting as a patron, he purchased paintings from many of the city’s leading artists.
Shortly after Gould had commissioned Durand to create a landscape for him, he was appointed Treasurer of the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad. It is not known to what extent he determined the painting’s content, but it is likely that as an investor in railroad stock he suggested at least part of the subject matter. Gould was, ironically, one of those antebellum tycoons who ordered paintings that preserved the memory of the very landscapes that were threatened by their industrial ventures.
The relationship between patron and artist soon deteriorated. Having finished the canvas, Durand submitted it to the National Academy of Design’s annual exhibition without informing Gould of its completion. The latter was not invited to the show’s opening.
Had the two fallen out? Was Durand weary of Gould’s reputation as an unscrupulous financier and broker? Or did Gould object to the ambivalence towards the idea of progress that the painting seems to convey?
Themes of urban development or industrial expansion are hard to find in Durand’s painted oeuvre. Instead, his landscapes tend to carry us into the serenity of pastoral settings untouched by man’s interference. They were meant to serve as antidotes to the nervous tension of metropolitan life and restore the lost blessings of inner tranquillity.
Progress by contrast draws one’s eyes from a “tamed” wilderness towards the buzzing city. On the left of the canvas, placed at the highest point of the composition, three Native Americans look down towards the spectacle of modern life. Stagecoaches and cattle drivers follow the road winding upward towards the railroad where a speeding train crosses a viaduct. A canal with a lock and barges may serve as a reminder of the ambitious construction of the Erie Canal.
A road at the far right corner of the landscape is lined with telegraph poles. A few evergreens tower over a log cabin. All other trees of the wood that once covered the hillside have been cleared to make way for husbandry or felled to build houses. In the distance, sunlight floods through parting clouds onto a port city where smoke plumes rise from departing steamboats. Factory chimneys dominate church steeples.
Early critics have described Durand’s painting as a hymn to industrialization. They interpreted its content as an exposition of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny (a phrase coined in 1845) whereby the United States was charged with the mission to spread progress across the entire continent. The burst of sunlight – with a reminder of Turner as does the speeding train – seemed to throw a divine blessing over man’s relentless intervention in the natural environment.
Durand’s message was misconstrued. To an artist who believed that the appropriate place to honor God was in the midst of nature, its destruction could hardly be observed with detachment. His apprehension about the decimation of the habitat can be felt throughout Progress. The “advance of civilization” implies the wilful destruction of God’s works for which succeeding generations shall suffer the consequences. His painting was not a song in praise of progress; it was a lament for what had been lost.
There was an additional personal element. Once Durand had turned his attention to landscape painting, he purchased a home on the Hudson River near Newburgh, Orange County, overlooking the sweet Vale of Avoca (named by nostalgic Irish immigrants after a natural beauty spot in County Wicklow immortalized by Thomas Moore in his hugely popular Irish Melodies).
Soon after settling there in 1849, the land was demanded for the construction of a railroad. Asher was driven from his country retreat by the demands of developers.
Durand published his Letters on Landscape Painting in 1855. There he stressed the spiritual mission of the landscape painter. As nature was the ineffable manifestation of God, it was the duty of the artist to revere and record His work. A genuine landscapist therefore should declare the “glory of God, by representation of his works, and not of the works of man.” The artist’s intention could not be clearer.
His painting is possibly more relevant today than it was at the time of creation.
Illustrations, from above: Asher B. Durand, “Progress (The Advance of Civilization),” 1853 (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts) – click here for a larger version; Asher Durand (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution); Asher B. Durand, The Declaration of Independence, engraving after John Trumbull’s painting, 1823 (The MET); various details from “Progress.”