Today is Masterpiece Monday where I show you intriguing works of art and talk about how to use them with your students in your classroom or homeschool. I’ve chosen another great painting that works really well in history lessons. It is American Progress by John Gast. Take a look.
This painting epitomizes the concept of Manifest Destiny in 19th-century America. In the 1800s, many Americans felt it was their justifiable, God-given duty to colonize the American west all the way to the Pacific ocean.
Art Discussion Questions
Take a look at this painting with your child and discuss it. You can use these tips for looking at art with kids. As always, don’t give any information about the painting or what it is about before discussing it with the kids. Let them figure it out for themselves.
Use these questions to guide your discussion.
- What’s going on in this painting?
- Compare and contrast the left side of the painting with the right side of the painting being sure to address the following areas: transportation, color, people, land, sky, animals, technology, emotions.
- Which direction is everyone moving in the painting? Why? What does this represent?
- Only one group of people look back in this painting. Who is it, and why are they looking back?
- Who is the woman in the center? What is she doing? What is she holding? What might she symbolize?
- What is the meaning or message of this painting?
- What does this painting teach us about the people in 19th century America? How do you think this painting summed up the ideas and thoughts of the people at the time?
You may have noticed that this is a very straightforward and easy-to-interpret painting. Everything in the painting is traveling to the left (the West). The floating, heavenly woman in the middle looks forward with purpose while she strings telegraph wire across the land. Trains and carriages take over while the Native Americans and animals scatter. The animals are domesticated on the right, and wild on the left. The white men confidently walk, while the Native Americans run and protest. Even the right side of the painting is lighter and brighter than the dark and untamed West. It is definitely clear how the Americans felt about the West.
As I mentioned above, this is a great artwork to use in history lessons about Manifest Destiny. Here are some more activities you can do to use this artwork in your classroom.
Art Analysis Group Activity
Use this printable worksheet to have students analyze the painting:
If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know I love having students write poems about art. With this one, I think it would be fun doing an acrostic poem where you take a word and write a poem with the first letter of each line being a letter from the word. You could use WEST or MANIFEST DESTINY or something like that.
Point of View Writing Activity
Have students write from the perspective of characters in the painting.
- Have students imagine they are traveling to the West and have them write letters back home.
- Have students write about their experience as a Native American being pushed off their land.
- Have students write from the perspective of the floating lady in the picture. What is she thinking about?
There are tons of lesson plans out there for history teachers. I did a search for “American Progress John Gast Lesson Plan” and come up with lots of resources!
Use this artwork in your classroom, and let me know how it goes in the comments!
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