The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts recently received the generous anonymous gift of Asher B. Durand’s painting Progress (The Advance of Civilization), which was approved by the VMFA Board of Trustees yesterday. 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 stands 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.