Painted in 1872 by John Gast to represent America’s divine right to expand their civilization westward.

Time, Age, and the Picturesque

When thinking of the ideal demonstration of the picturesque, the one piece of work that came to mind was the painting by John Gast called “American Progress.” Throughout history it was believed that we as human beings were destined to influence the world through our countries ideals and beliefs. When the United States expanded westward in the nineteenth century, those who expanded believed that it was their god given right to expand west and colonize. It was their task handed to them from god to spread their religion and beliefs to the Native people who currently resided in the desired land and convert them from “heathens” or “savages” to a civilized being. “Indeed, many settlers believed that God himself blessed the growth of the American nation. The Native Americans were considered heathens. By Christianizing the tribes, American missionaries believed they could save souls” (“American History [ushistory.org]” 29). In John Gast’s painting “American Progress” he demonstrates America’s journey into the mysterious west during expansion. The angel in his painting acts as a type of religious symbolism to demonstrate the U.S. belief that God supports their expansion and spreading their civilized customs. His painting can be considered sublime through the eyes of those who hold the same religious belief through the inspiration a prideful feeling of the country’s growth and admiration for the social, economic, can cultural advancements. This painting follows William Gilpin’s ideal of the picturesque with ripples in the angel’s dress and the representation in the clouds as the settlers head toward potential danger and ruin at the cost of civilization. The clouds symbolize mystery and devastation for many native tribes as they forcibly take away their land and force them to convert to their beliefs. Regardless of such ruin, the American settlers believe that god is guiding them to expansion and wealth. John Gast uses rough terrain such as the mountains in the background and  objects crossing the land to give his painting  a picturesque element. The photo I took that I have  named “Darkness Falls” I  chose to capture with this painting in mind. The contrast of light and dark can be seen as    both sublime and picturesque. The darkness that surrounds the light I saw as an appropriate representation of how one’s eye is directed to the light, causing you to miss the greater picture. What we may see as a positive element for us as individuals may create ruin and destruction around us. Even though there is light that overcomes all the negative aspects of the photograph, there is darkness that consumes the light. One could interpret this as fear, which can be considered sublime through the views of Edmund Burke. “Whatever therefore is terrible, with regard to sight, is sublime too, whether this cause of terror be endued with greatness of dimensions or not; for it is impossible to look on anything as trifling, or contemptible, that may be dangerous” (Burke, 131). When the U.S. murdered thousands of Native Americans with the belief that it was god’s will and desire, we blocked out the devastation that was brought to the lives of the Natives who had owned that land first. The fear in the eyes of the natives and the terrible events that took place during this time could be seen as sublime by Burke’s standards. What many may see as divine is really the cause of destruction and despair. As human beings we often only chose to see what benefits each of   us individually and we either ignore or become ignorant of the effects of our actions on the people around us. Through the eyes of the individual, one would see this in a subliminal aspect due to the bright light and the colors but when you think about the photo in a deeper aspect you can notice the picturesque aspect of it in accordance with William Gilpin’s views. The dark ripples of grey eating away at the light in the middle, the jagged hills in the background and the darkness caving in can all symbolize a type of ruin as the darkness slowly eats away at the remaining light until there is nothing left.

Throughout this assignment I have come to realize that picturesque scenes can be found almost anywhere and  are commonly ignored as insignificant throughout our lives. The picture above demonstrates one of the many subliminal scenes that we tend to overlook in our daily lives. Living organisms that are full of youth and vitality are typically seen as appealing to the human eye. We tend to overlook what is picturesque through things that have aged or has a rough surface. In this photograph age has become an apparent in the lives of the subjects. The purple and yellow colors mixed with the fallen leaves and soil represents a new season that is upon us. The wrinkles in the fruit and the rocky soil mixed in with the dried leaves demonstrates ruin and destruction. As summer has passed and with falls arrival we witness the destruction of the living organisms that once occupied the vibrant trees, and now occupies the ground, soon to become one with the soil. For those who follow a religious path, this life cycle may be seen, by those who believe it, to be God’s intention for death to follow a long and fruitful life of all “his creatures”. God is believed to create all living things with a specific purpose. As each living organism lives out their existence, they have carried out what can be considered God’s intended purpose.

“The lines, and surface of a beautiful human form are so infinitely varied; the lights and shades, which it receives, are so exquisitely tender in some parts, and yet so round, and bold in others; it’s proportions are so just; and it’s limbs so fitted to receive all the beauties of grace, and contrast; that even the face, in which the charms of intelligence, and sensibility reside, is almost lost in the comparison. But altho the human form, in a quiescent state, is thus beautiful; yet the more it’s smooth surface is ruffled, if I may so speak, the more picturesque it appears” (Gilpin, 12). This statement by William Gilpin was one of the first things that came to mind when I decided to take this photograph of the tree trunk. The wrinkle in the bark, in my personal opinion, represents wisdom and age just as a human would. It’s worn looking surface demonstrates power and strength through the challenges it has overcome in the trees many years of life. Like a human being, a tree trunk becomes more and more picturesque with age. With age comes wisdom which is also demonstrated in many religious paintings throughout time. God is always represented as an older man who displays a pictures-tic outlook through the many perspectives of man. Even though many potray their religious figures as youthful, it is also common that gods are usually old and carry an excessive amount of wisdom. The pope is another figure who demonstrates pictures-tic style in his portraits through his signs of age that has gained him the wisdom he holds today. Even In films such as “The Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” the one who leads with the most wisdom and power is portrayed as an older man with god-like abilities. This builds onto Gilpin’s idea that even though beauty tends to decline with age, the picturesque only increases as one demonstrates more power and allows each sign of age to tell a unique story.

In the photograph above, I aimed to demonstrate a sense of pathos relating to the negative emotions felt by many that cold winter day. The withering plants’ surrounding the icy object demonstrates evidence of the ruin that was created by the deadly frost that has brought death upon the living organisms and has encumbered the object in its icy tomb. The grey skies and dark atmosphere has demolished what was left of the vibrant life that existed only weeks before. The sunshine and warmth that we had once known was replaced by chilling rain and vibrant snowflakes. The scene captured before you, depressing as it may seem, follows William Gilpin’s idea of the picturesque through its rugged perception. The leaves, frozen and jagged, permit this photograph to demonstrate the picturesque through it representation of ruin and destruction. “Should we wish to give it picturesque beauty, we must use the mallet, instead of the chisel: we must beat down one half of it, deface the other, and throw the mutilated members around in heaps. In short, from a smooth building we must turn it into a rough ruin. No painter, who had the choice of the two objects, would hesitate a moment” (Gilpin, 7). The cold shadows and darkness can invoke a sense of fear, following the basis of Burke’s argument and what is considered sublime. In a religious standpoint you can consider a common belief that a higher power has control of the weather and controls all of earth’s elements. The depression atmosphere of this photo could have an element of fear suggesting that it may hold a subliminal aspect in the ideals of William Burke.

As individuals we all carry a unique story that can be told and seen in time. Our wrinkles will tell the story of the struggles we faced, the joy we felt, and the lives we lived that can be interpreted in many different ways. As our beauty fades our sense of the picturesque will grow along with our knowledge and experiences. Although our views on the sublime, the picturesque, and beauty will vary just as our religious outlooks will, we will all have a story to represent in our art, our faces and our hearts. As we get older and become more picturesque and grasp a greater concept of the sublime, we will gain more wisdom and courage to share our knowledge. As time goes on we will add our subliminal and picturesque aspects to the history books just as the U.S. settlers did in the nineteenth century. Even though our views have greatly changed since that time, our country continues to grow and gain wisdom with age, we allow our country to become more picturesque and sublime along with the natural environment around us. Through time we witness fear, destruction, ruin, joy, expansion, improvement that allows us to fall under the categories of the picturesque, the sublime, and even the beautiful, thus allow time to be the true representation of the picturesque.