Cornwell’s “Gold Rush” as Allegory

Dean Cornwell, "Gold Rush II," 1926

Dean Cornwell, “Gold Rush II,” 1926

John Gast, "American Progress," 1872

John Gast, “American Progress,” 1872

On a recent trip to Denver, I had the pleasure of touring the Denver Art Museum and came across a large painting by Dean Cornwell, an artist best known as an illustrator. “Gold Rush II”, created in 1926, depicts the settling of the West after the Civil War. I admit I laughed when I first looked at the picture, not because it is funny, but because it is subversively ironic. A casual or uninformed viewer might think it glorifies the westward sweep of American settlers, for after all the oncoming horde seems to include everyone, from adults of all kinds to children and animals, with faces of earnest and single-minded vision; even the little milk goat in the foreground, led by a singularly earnest child, seems to march towards its promised land with great fortitude.

But what caught my eye was the grouping to the right of center, the woman carrying an infant and accompanied by a much older man. The woman’s expression, either serene or fatigued, and her blue dress allude to the Madonna and Child; the Virgin Mary is almost always portrayed wearing blue in Medieval and
Renaissance iconography,and she is of course almost always holding the infant Jesus. In front of her is a little boy looking on adoringly, perhaps an older child of hers, or an allusion to the putti occasionally found in nativity scenes. In Cornwell’s painting, she is also riding a donkey, and the old man next to her could very well allude to Joseph, who tradition says was much older than she–so what we have here is a vignette of the flight into Egypt of the Holy Family.

Yet looking at Joseph carefully, one notes that his face is as pallid as a corpse and that the wisps of white hair on either side of his head look very much like horns–i.e., he seems more like the devil than a saint. Then we notice again the gaze of the woman, who not only seems sad or tired but, unlike the others in the swarm of settlers, does not look forward but to the side, as if she did not welcome the future that was in store for her.

And that was in store for the native inhabitants of the West. To the left of the painting, in the gap between the human swarm and the trio of men at the extreme left, one can glance the sides of cattle, which seem to have already passed the three men by, while at the front of the gap one sees the desiccated skull of a bison. The three men, two Indians and a trapper dressed in deer skin clothing and a fur hat, seem unaware of the horde bearing down on them. They appear to be deep in conversation (perhaps concerning what’s about to end their way of life?); that they don’t know what’s about to hit them may be indicated by the fact that one of the Indians has his back to the horde while the trapper has his back to the viewer. Yet the trapper’s head is turned ever so slightly to his right, as if he has just caught a glimpse of the approaching horde in his peripheral vision.

One then looks back again at the faces of the oncoming settlers, and what one sees in those faces is unsettling: greed and brutality.

Thus, Cornwell’s painting comes together not as a glorification of the settling of the West but as a dark allegory of the destruction of a native way of life and of native species, to be replaced by the money-culture of the Americans. This is a very different picture from John Gast’s 1872 “American Progress,” which depicted the settling of the West in terms of Manifest Destiny. Gast’s picture is calm and serene whereas Cornwell’s is tumultuous and crowded; Gast depicts stalwart farmers (a la Jefferson’s yeoman farmer), technological progress (railroads and telegraph), and busy trade (the boats on the river) amidst a pastoral landscape; Cornwell barely alludes to the landscape of the West (a hint of red cliffs in the far background, obscured by the cows and a conestoga wagon). Gast portrays the Indians and buffalo fleeing before civilization, while Cornwell portrays the Indians as upright and proud and engaged in quiet conversation, apparently not yet aware of what awaits them, while alluding to the near extinction of the buffalo.

Manifest destiny derived much of its legitmacy from particularly American interpretations of the Bible, such as the notion of America as a New Jerusalem, and of Americans as a new chosen people. Yet as Cornwell’s paradoxical portrait of the Holy Family suggests, the Christianizing of the West brought devastation rather than progress. We often think of illustrators as sentimental, a la Norman Rockwell, and in his career Cornwell certainly did create some sentimantalized portraits for the magazines of his time; but in “Gold Rush II” he used his skills for a much more serious purpose, to tell a different, less self-congratulatory and darker story of the settling of the West than popular culture usually depicted.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Carole Marlowe  On September 15, 2013 at 11:28 AM

    I agree completely with the review! I would add that the woman is the only woman in the picture and her second class citizen status as well as a future of toil and drudgery might be part of the less than enthusiastic expression.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: