Rather than celebrating nature in the tradition of the Hudson River School, George Inness' Lackawanna Valley seems to commemorate the onset of America's industrial age. While documenting the achievements of the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad, Inness has also created a topographically convincing view of Scranton, Pennsylvania. The artist took relatively few liberties with his composition, but in compliance with the wishes of his corporate patron, he intentionally exaggerated the prominence of the railroad's yet-to-be-completed roundhouse. His inclusion of numerous tree stumps in the picture's foreground, although accurate, lends an important note of ambiguity to the work.
Whether it is read as an enthusiastic affirmation of technology or as a belated lament for a rapidly vanishing wilderness, this painting exemplifies a crucial philosophical dilemma that confronted many Americans in the 1850s; expansion inevitably necessitated the widespread destruction of unspoiled nature, itself a still-powerful symbol of the nation's greatness. Although it was initially commissioned as an homage to the machine, Inness' Lackawanna Valley nevertheless serves as a poignant pictorial reminder of the ephemeral nature of the American Dream.