The Promised Land—The Grayson Family

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The Promised Land—The Grayson Family
William S. Jewett
Oil on canvas
50 3/4 x 64 in.
Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection

The family in this painting seems to have just stepped from the wilderness into a clearing. The man and woman look out over a vast unsettled valley that appears to stretch before them endlessly. The cooking pot, horse, and dead stag suggest that they have been traveling and living off the land. Notice the clothing that the man wears—buckskins, but with a formal white shirt and cravat (type of tie). His wife wears an elegant gown and his son a princely, fur-trimmed robe. These are not typical traveling clothes!

The people shown are the Graysons, and they were part of the great westward expansion of the United States during the mid-1800s. The Graysons traveled overland from Missouri to California in 1846, two years ahead of the Gold Rush that drew so many more fortune seekers to California. Mr. Grayson became very wealthy in the West and commissioned this painting to tell his family’s story. He gave specific instructions to the artist, William Jewett, about the clothing, the setting, and other details in the portrait. 

Jewett made this painting eleven years before the Civil War started, and it speaks to the common attitude in the years leading up to the war—that western lands were there for the taking. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, most white Northerners and Southerners felt that the Western territories should be settled by white Americans, and that moving Indians to reservations and making their land available to white settlers was God’s plan, or the nation’s “manifest destiny.” Abundant land and resources, however, raised difficult questions for the young United States. The question of whether slavery should be allowed in the Western territories caused much debate, and ultimately led to conflict.  

1. Why do you think Mr. Grayson wanted his family portrait placed in the landscape shown in this painting? How would the portrait be different if they had been shown inside their home?

2. What do you think Mr. Grayson wanted viewers of this portrait to think about him and his family? How does their clothing convey a sense of their self-identity? Explain your ideas by providing evidence from the painting.

3. How might this painting relate to the idea of manifest destiny, which made white Americans feel entitled to the lands in the West? Explain your ideas by providing evidence from the painting.

4. Why do you think the artist (or Mr. Grayson) chose to have the young boy look back at viewers of this painting? What effect does this have?

Further reading:
Terra Foundation for American Art. “William S. Jewett – The Promised Land – The Grayson Family.” Terra Foundation for American Art.$004072/0?t:state:flow=a19a1fe9-b988-41ad-b86e-ce759d457c8f.

©Terra Foundation for American Art