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The West
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Imagemap: link to IRC Credits

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.

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