Friday, June 10, 2011

(Week 2 Post) Thomas Hill, "The Last Spike", 1881

I’ve chosen Thomas Hill’s “The Last Spike” as my landscape painting, an 1881 painting that depicts the completion of America’s first transcontintental railroad. The “last spike” refers to the final moment when the railroad was completed with a golden spike. One element that makes Hill’s painting an interesting example of a landscape are the four hundred figures in the painting, of which seventy are individual painted portraits of prominent people who were present at the event. Not naturally grouped as they would have been during the actual celebration, the figures are grouped according to official prominence and importance, and include Leland Stanford, the Governor of California, and many key players in the construction and overseeing of the railroad, with Reverend Dr. Todd leading a prayer in the foreground of the painting.
The view of the landscape is eastward along the Union Pacific Railroad toward the horizon, arguably an interesting direction for a landscape painting, which we have come to associate in American art as left = East, right = West. The painting also includes many elements that we perceive as traditional of the plains and transport, such as a stage coach and covered wagons – now defunct in their functions thanks to the railway, presented in contrast to the modern mode of transport (the railway) the progression in technology and from the old to the new is exemplified. Also interesting to note is the presence of a Native American in traditional dress at the right-hand foreground, one of a small number of people in the painting who are given attention to through portraits, and yet is not named or recognised in a ‘Key to Portraits’ image handed out with pamphlets at the time the painting was presented. For Hill, a member of the Hudson River School whose many previous paintings had been beautiful landscapes celebrating the natural beauty of America, the inclusion of a Native American person looking solemnly in our direction in a landscape that showcases a huge man made invention that would significantly alter the landscape, might symbolise a possible regret at the completion of such technology.

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