Grade Level: 5–6
Discussion of a landscape painting by George Inness will introduce students to the impact of the railroad to the countryside in mid-nineteenth century America. They will depict this same scenery as they envision it in the past and in the future. Lastly, they will write an essay on how they would preserve the environment as the head of a railroad company.
The Lackawanna Valley, c. 1856
oil on canvas, 86 x 127.5 cm (33 7/8 x 50 3/16 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Gift of Mrs. Huttleston Rogers
What do you think was the artist’s intention in this painting?
George Inness received a commission from the president of the new Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad to paint The Lackawanna Valley for advertising purposes. While documenting the achievements of the railroad, Inness also created a view of Scranton, Pennsylvania. The artist took relatively few liberties with his composition, but in compliance with the wishes of his patron, he included four trains and intentionally exaggerated the prominence of the railroad’s yet-to-be-completed roundhouse, a building for housing and repairing trains.
Steam-powered trains, like the one featured here that burned wood, released smoke and soot in the air and contributed to early forms of pollution in the United States. Rail travel was so dirty that it was not uncommon for porters to brush soot off passengers at the end of the line. Around the end of the nineteenth century, the Lackawanna Railroad—which had begun to use anthracite, a hard coal that produced heat but less smoke and flame—developed a campaign to counter its sooty reputation. Ads featured passenger Phoebe Snow, dressed in white, who rode the rails and praised the line’s cleanliness with slogans such as, “Says Phoebe Snow about to go upon a trip to Buffalo: ‘My gown stays white from morn ’til night upon the Road of Anthracite.’”* Inness’ inclusion of numerous tree stumps in the foreground, although accurate, lends ambiguity to the work. Is the painting to be read as an enthusiastic affirmation of technology or as a lament for a rapidly vanishing wilderness? This was a philosophical dilemma confronting Americans in the 1850s. Expansion inevitably necessitated the widespread destruction of unspoiled nature, itself a powerful symbol of the nation’s greatness.
Students will draw or paint two depictions of this setting. The first will be of the valley one thousand years prior to the date of this painting (1856). They should consider the following questions:
Students will then imagine this valley one thousand years into the future, answering the same questions.
Ideally, we should balance human progress with preservation of the natural environment. Here, trees had to be cut down to make room for the railroad beds, to build the tracks, and to fuel the trains. Students will write an essay imagining they are the owner of the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad. They should answer the question, how could you be a good steward of the environment as your railroad expanded? One answer might be to plant trees in other areas to replace those cut down.
VA:Cn11.1.6 Analyze how art reflects changing times, traditions, resources, and cultural uses.
VA:Cr1.1.6 Combine concepts collaboratively to generate innovative ideas for creating art.
VA:Re7.1.6 Identify and interpret works of art or design that reveal how people live around the world and what they value.
VA:Re7.2.6 Analyze ways that visual components and cultural associations suggested by images influence ideas, emotions, and actions.
VA:Re8.1.6 Interpret art by distinguishing between relevant and non-relevant contextual information and analyzing subject matter, characteristics of form and structure, and use of media to identify ideas and mood conveyed.
Borrow the teaching packet Art&
Access activities, curriculum resources, and information that relate art, science, and the environment from the Environmental Protection Agency
View satellite images of environmental change and descriptions of issues affecting particular locations from the United States Geologic Survey site