Gifted Anonymously to VMFA, Asher B. Durand's 'Progress' Will Be Displayed With Native American Objects

  • RICHMOND, Virginia
  • /
  • February 06, 2019

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Asher Durand, Progress (The Advance of Civilization (1853).
Courtesy Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Gift marks first time this American masterpiece has been in public domain since its creation in 1853; the work formerly resided in private hands, including the Jack Warner collection.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports an unidentified buyer paid $40 million for it in 2011.

In Fall 2019, 'Progress,' which represents the idea of Manifest Destiny---along with the clash of industrial expansion and nature---will be shown with Native American objects from the VMFA collection, to offer perspective.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Virginia, late last year received the generous anonymous gift of Asher B. Durand’s painting Progress (The Advance of Civilization). One of the most important works of American art in private hands, this is the highest valued gift of a single work of art in VMFA’s history, and represents the first time the painting has been held outside of private collections since it was painted in 1853. Because of the extraordinary generosity of the donor, this beloved, canonical painting now enters the public domain, allowing the citizens of Virginia to be among the first to benefit from its presence in its new home at VMFA.

Commissioned by the financier and industrialist Charles Gould (1811–1870), this work complements VMFA’s collection of paintings by other Hudson River School artists, including Thomas Cole, Jasper Francis Cropsey, Frederic Edwin Church, George Inness and Robert Seldon Duncanson. Only a handful of masterpieces in American art—including Thomas Cole’s The Oxbow and George Inness’s The Lackawanna Valley (which hang in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art respectively)—rival Progress in dramatizing the meeting of nature and civilization.

“As one of the best known American paintings made in the nineteenth-century, Progress considerably elevates the quality of the Virginia Museum of Fine Art’s collection of American art,” says VMFA’s Director Alex Nyerges. “This incredible gift affords our visitors from Virginia and around the world the opportunity to experience a masterpiece by one of the country’s greatest painters.”

Since its creation, Progress has provided an object lesson in several aspects of cultural and social history, including the Industrial Revolution, ecology and deforestation, the growth of American railroads, and Native American policies. In the painting, a group of Native Americans stand to the left of the trees facing a stream reminiscent of the Hudson, Susquehanna and Delaware rivers. To the right, a small town can be seen along with a steam-spewing locomotive and livestock following the path of telegraph poles. Progress presents a bold joining of opposites, a merging of the old law—nature and indigenous populations—and the new law, represented by industry and settlement.

“This painting suggests the artist’s awareness of recent Native American history,” explains Leo Mazow, VMFA’s Louise B. and J. Harwood Cochrane Curator of American Art. “As tightly composed and naturalistic as the painting is, lifelikeness and documentary history are less the point of the work than Durand’s effort to balance the signs of ‘progress’ in all its majesty, but with its very real costs.”

Progress will be on view in VMFA’s American Galleries as of December 18, 2018. In fall 2019 it will be joined by objects from the museum’s Native American collection—including a late nineteenth-century Crow War Shirt and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s War Torn Dress—offering counter-narratives to the visualization of settlement and expansion.

Durand’s painting will augment educational programming at VMFA, said Michael Taylor, VMFA’s Chief Curator and Deputy Director for Art and Education. “Progress will be featured prominently in gallery programming, especially docent-led tours for students, supporting the Virginia Standards-of-Learning across a range of subject areas. The painting strengthens the museum’s ability to present the richness of American art and cultural history.”

About Progress (The Advance of Civilization)

Progress is one of the most frequently published and discussed American landscape paintings, finding its way into general surveys and critical studies alike. In art history scholarship, the painting presents an early, but frequently followed example of the so-called middle landscape or middle state ethic, in which the iconography of industry and the bounty of nature mesh with and envelop each other. The painting was commissioned by financier, industrialist and collector Charles Gould (1811–1870), who would shortly thereafter become broker and then treasurer for the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad. Gould did not dictate the style or subject matter of Progress, but he was one of many antebellum patrons who commissioned art that preserved in paint the kind of landscapes threatened by their own interests in locomotive industries.

Progress was held in the private collection of the late Jack Warner before it was sold in 2011. The painting was gifted to VMFA by an anonymous donor in December 2018.

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