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Envisioning Manifest Destiny, Leutze's Westward the Course of Empire

The painting "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way" by Leutze symbolizes the concept of Manifest Destiny. It portrays pioneers journeying westward, overcoming hardships, and clearing paths through diverse landscapes. The painting also highlights the political implications of westward expansion, including the displacement of Native Americans.

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Video transcript

(pleasant piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, looking at a painting by an artist, whose name is Leutze, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way. It's a study for a mural that was added the next year in 1862 in the Capitol Building. - [Carol] We have pioneers in wagons. We have American woodsmen in their buckskins. We have farmers, immigrants, children, women. All making that treacherous journey to settle the West. - [Steven] This painting for me has two stars. On the one hand it is these varied figures. But the other star is the landscape that they inhabit. - [Carol] If you strip out all the people in your mind's eye and just look at the land, you can see that it's chock full of different types of land masses and artifacts, that you wouldn't find in one actual place. So, huge, treacherous snow-capped mountains, flat mesas of the desert, and eventually to the golden land that they are journeying towards. - [Steven] It's important to remember that in 1861 photography was still in its infancy. People didn't have access to the western landscape, especially people in Washington DC. - [Carol] And this painting was created to tell a story. It embodies the concept of manifest destiny, that it was our god-given right and duty to settle the country all the way to the West Coast. - [Steven] Manifest destiny is of course inherently political. Just a few years before this, much of what is now the Southwestern United States had been taken from Mexico, and we were displacing Native Americans as Europeans moved westward. - [Carol] And in this painting, it looks as if they are clearing the way to forge westward to someplace, where no one has ever been, and that's just patently not true. In fact in the border, you see Native American figures who are being pushed away by the eagle. - [Steven] Let's take a look at the way that figures move through this canvas. You mentioned the figures at the extreme left. They're axes are raised, they're breaking up a large fallen tree. So, they are clearing this path. It is as if as you say, nobody has ever come this way before. - [Carol] The figures in the painting literally move from east to west, from the right side of the painting to the left side of the painting. So, on the right, we see wagons. We see women. We see children. We can sense of strength and loss that's happened on this long and treacherous journey. We see men pulling the oxen and the horses up a treacherous rocky hill. We see someone has died. There's a cross and there's someone in a burial shroud, and there are mourners. We see a skeleton perhaps of a horse and a broken wagon wheel. And all these things allude to the difficult journey that they've had to go through. Even the light in the painting changes. They're going from a dark shadowed area to the left, where they're bathed in this golden light, and it looks as if the journey is about to become a bit easier. They've passed over these treacherous land masses and now as you said they are clearing the way in the path through what Leutze called El Dorado, the Golden Land. - [Steven] The figures surge up to get a better look at the vista, perhaps of the distant golden sliver of the Pacific Ocean, which you can just make out on the horizon and this reminds me of the great tradition of history painting in Europe, of the surging figures in Jericho's the Raft of the Medusa for example. - [Carol] You're right and it even has a very similar pyramidal composition to some of those historical paintings. And then we have this lovely vignette here of a man in a coonskin cap who is cradling his wife and newborn baby and his daughter. His wife is swathed in red, white, and blue and she reminds us of an American Madonna figure, and his right hand is extended to show her the promised land, this is where we're going. You can imagine this baby was born on this journey. - [Steven] So, westward expansion itself is clothed in a kind of spirituality in a kind of righteousness. And the painting is literally framed with references that make that clear. We have the Three Wise Men that follow the Star of Bethlehem to find the baby Jesus. You have on the right the spies of a Esch-elle who had entered into the promised land before Moses and the Israelites. - [Carol] And they're carrying between them this humongous bunch of grapes, which they brought back with them to show the bounty of the land that they discovered. So, in a sense it's a comparison to the bounty of the land that these settlers in the painting are heading towards. Leutze is trying to imbue these figures with a sense of monumentality, a sense of mythology, a sense that they too are entering the same realm as Christopher Columbus or Hercules or Moses. The figures that you see in the vignettes in the frame. - [Steven] And I love the fact that the painting includes also their destination. You see at the bottom, this beautiful landscape, this beautiful vista of the Bay of San Francisco of the Golden Gate, where we would expect now to see the bridge. This is the destination that will make all of this hardship worthwhile. - [Carol] And at the bottom we have Captain William Clark of Lewis & Clark fame. The idea that these pioneers are following in the footsteps of others who have moved West, with a sense of great discovery. - [Steven] So Clark and Daniel Boone. This is the creation of American heroes. - [Carol] And the creation of American mythology as well, that this country is ours to discover and explore and innovate. - [Steven] This was painted in 1861, the year that the Civil War began, and so we can look at this painting as an attempt to create a mythology of national unity, that both the North and the South could join in this westward expansion. - [Carol] And that idea that the nation, which is broken can come together again. This as we mentioned as a study for a final mural of the Capitol, and when Leutze created the final mural, he altered it a little bit to add in an African-American figure. By this time, he'd read a draft of Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, and he was very well aware of the cultural significance of that and Leutze himself as an immigrant to this country, coming from Germany, being the artist, who will represent this country's nascent history in our move westward. - [Steven] One can only imagine how important that mythology was in the first years of the Civil War. (pleasant piano music)