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“Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” by Emanuel Leutze

Emanuel Leutze - Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way - Smithsonian

“Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” by Emanuel Leutze is a painted study of a massive painted mural currently displayed behind the western staircase of the House of Representatives chamber in the United States Capitol Building.  The picture depicts a group of pioneers on their journey westward as they catch their first glimpse of the “promised land” of California.

The painting and the mural symbolise the belief that the United States was destined for Western expansion beyond the colonies along the east coast. The image depicts pioneers, mountain guides, wagons, and mules to suggest a divinely ordained pilgrimage to the western frontier. The picture is full of symbolism. The pioneers stand at the threshold of the Promised Land, ready to fulfil what was believed to be God’s plan for the nation. The surging crowd of figures represent the births, deaths, and battles fought as European Americans settled the continent coast to coast.

Small scenes within the detailed border link the pioneers to biblical, mythical, and historical figures. On the left is included Moses parting the Red Sea; the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts sailing home with the Golden Fleece; and the Three Wise Men travelling to Bethlehem. The right border includes Christopher Columbus, the spies of Eshcol, who explored Canaan before the Israelites arrived, and Hercules splitting a mountain to create the pillars of Gibraltar. The bottom border shows the explorers Daniel Boone and Captain William Clark with views of San Francisco Bay.

The painting takes its inspiration from George Berkeley’s Verses:

Westward the course of empire takes its way;
The first four Acts already past,
A fifth shall close the Drama with the day;
Time’s noblest offspring is the last.

Emanuel Leutze was a German American history painter best known for his painting Washington Crossing the Delaware.

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Essential Facts:

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“Everyone discusses my art and pretends to understand, as if it were necessary to understand, when it is simply necessary to love.” Claude Monet

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Photo Credit: 1)Emanuel Leutze [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons By Wikipedia Loves Art participant “trish” [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons