A poignant narrative scene, Breaking Home Ties shows a young man beginning his life's journey as he bids farewell to his family. Sadly, the painter of this work, Thomas Hovenden, was nearing the end of his life's journey. In 1895, Hovenden died trying to save a little girl who had wandered on to train tracks near his home in Philadelphia's suburbs. Hovenden and the child were struck and killed by a rail locomotive, the supreme symbol of nineteenth century progress.
The Irish-born Hovenden had painted Breaking Home Ties in 1890. That year, a report from the U.S. Census Department revealed that westward frontier development had ceased, "there can hardly be said to be a frontier line." Young Americans like the central figure in the painting were no longer being urged to "go West." Instead, they were heading to America's booming industrial cities.
"The frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history,” announced historian Frederick Jackson Turner in an influential lecture presented in Chicago in 1893 that later became known as the Frontier Thesis.