Thursday, 14 November 2013

Week 8 Blog

American Studies Week 8 Blog

Select and analyse any 19thC painting or photograph of either the American West or the native American peoples, and explore the implications of “manifest destiny” in the image, both overt and hidden. Make sure not to choose something  from the East coast or something obscure, eg it should be something that is culturally recognised as associated with the West and expansion.

This painting by George Catlin depicts a scene in the American West. Three Native Americans are in the process of hunting some bison. It is set in an upland wilderness with grass, scattered trees and majestic, bare mountain peaks, and is painted with vibrant colour, especially green, illustrating the lushness of the environment at the time. The mountain range in the background is symbolic of challenge posed by the country that needs to be conquered, a destiny with which Americans have come to associate themselves today. It could be said that the scene is a kind of paradise, as Catlin describes this particular setting that he painted as “like a fairy land”. If so, it was the destiny of American settlers to occupy and cultivate this Eden.
The reason for this is that within this huge natural setting Catlin has only depicted three isolated living figures of Native Americans, who are hunting half a dozen or so bison. The landscape is extremely empty, uncultivated, unused. The Native Americans seem to have done nothing to improve it. Manifest destiny was seen as calling to American settlers to move west and put the land to much better use. There could be farms and crops grown here, and the area could be filled with people instead of being some kind of ‘wasteland’. To American eyes, it is completely uncivilized. From this picture, it seems that the price to be paid for this would be small. There is no sign of other animals such as elk and wolves, and so it ignores two species that would come to suffer greatly as a result of the desire of the Americans to realize their manifest destiny. As is well known, the bison were also hunted to the brink of extinction during this era and as a result the Native Americans who had depended on the animals as their livelihood greatly suffered. It also goes without saying that the Native Americans also suffered from genocide and were forced to relocate from such settings as depicted in the paintings as the white people migrated westward. But there are so few of them here that it seems ridiculous that they should be allowed to stand in the way of progress. So in many ways, the painting is representative of the ideas about Native Americans and the wilderness that allowed them to be destroyed as a result of manifest destiny.
It is true that the painting did not attempt to depict the Native Americans as something evil or bad. If one was to look at other paintings, such the American Progress by John Cast, they are clearly depicted in this manner with the use of dark clouds painted above their heads. However in Catlin’s painting, there is nothing of the sort. They hardly seem to exist as a problem.

Second Image -

            A second painting, by Charles Marion Russell, depicts an encounter between gold diggers and Native Americans at the very end of the 19th century. Entitled A Desperate Stand it shows several men making a last stand by forming a circle and using their horses to protect themselves. Native Americans are circling on their horses.
In the painting Russell clearly attempts to portray those making this stand as heroes who were being attacked by barbaric Natives. It is most likely that the audience of the time would have viewed this painting as another example of the Natives being an obstacle to the progress of American society and as people who were occupying land and resources that were rightly theirs. The gold diggers were simply trying to better themselves and take advantages of natural resources that they Native Americans had neglected and to which they therefore had no right. They clearly need to be excluded from the landscape because they have no ideas of civilized behaviour in attacking such a numerically inferior enemy.
In reality, of course, such confrontations as depicted in the painting were caused as a result of the repeated violations of the treaties by gold diggers who would venture into Native American territory in search of gold. The painting also serves as a premonition of how the manifest destiny/expansion to the west would eventually result in the Native Americans being driven out of their land and forced into territories and reservations against their will. No such concerns were allowed any value in paintings like this. The artist’s sympathies were all on one side.

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