The Union Pacific Railroad crossed the Continental Divide in Wyoming, and is still in active use today as what Adam Cvijanvoic notes is one of the main transportation lines through which the East Coast receives goods. Cvijanovic, who has said that he has difficulty painting “normal couch-sized paintings,” depicts this fulcrum between west and east at its highest point, where it traverses a kind of heavenly plain. We are looking to the east with the light behind us, into an infinitely regressing perspective, but against the trajectory of Manifest Destiny.
Cvijanovic’s expansive and virtuosic scenes recall the heroic grandeur of nineteenth-century American sublime landscape painting, which dramatized natural beauty to create a vernacular, homegrown pictorial language that valorized a threatened wilderness. The line between industry and nature, however, became increasingly blurred as the ideals of progress advanced across the landscape. George Inness’ The Lackawanna Valley (1855), commissioned by the railroad, integrates the locomotive comfortably within the landscape, as does Jasper Francis Cropsey’s Starrucca Viaduct (1865). Railroads are romantic almost by definition, but as Cvijanovic shows, it is only when they are isolated in pictures, or when they stop being conduits for trade, that their nostalgic and heroic connotations are freed to bloom.