An Historical Painting
Masur: The West existed as much in people's imaginations as in their
experiences. And depictions of the frontier served a critical role in helping
to shape a vision of American national destiny. One of the most important
images was "Westward the course of empire takes its way," by Emmanuel Leutze.
Leutze in this scene depicts a train of immigrants who have finally reached the
promised land, that point of the Sierra Nevada where they are looking across,
and they can see the Pacific slope ahead of them. In the image, an eagle
unfurls the title banner. At the bottom, he included medallion portraits of
William Clark and Daniel Boone, two heroic figures in the early discovery and
settlement of the West.
There's almost no allusion to the Indians here. But it was the Indians and
"Indian Troubles," so to speak, that this train of immigrants had survived in
coming across. Indeed, the only Indians anywhere in this picture are buried
here at the very top, along the sides of the banner that is being unfurled, as
if it is knocking them out of the picture itself.
This was an oil study that Leutze did before executing the mural for the United
States Capitol. And in executing the mural, he made a significant compositional
change. Here, in the train of immigrants, he included the figure of a black
man, a black man leading an Irish immigrant woman and child. The three-some
appears almost as a holy family, and revisits the theme of Madonna and child.
For Leutze, the story of the expansion through the West was to be an inclusive
story, a story that incorporated all elements of American society, into the
possibilities of reaching this promised land on the Western shore.