Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (mural study, U.S. Capitol)
Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze. German-American. 1816-1868
Artist Emanuel Leutze’s dominating mural is located inside the US Capitol Building. The mural is a tribute to westward expansion policy in the nineteenth century, and honors the settlers who colonized the American West. This artwork, which celebrates racist history, is still visible within the halls of power where it continues to inform political decision makers today.
The story of Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s mural, commissioned for the US Capitol Building at the start of the American Civil war, demonstrates how westward expansion was used as a political tool to unify the fracturing republic. Leutze borrowed tropes from Bible stories and European and American landscape painting to suggest that colonial settlers had a divine right to the American West.
Emanuel Leutze’s 1862 mural for the US Capitol Building is an artwork that represents the American doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Its visual narrative tells the story of settlers who navigate the American Rockies while its placement within the national architecture that houses federal policy and law making indicates how important this settlement was to the self-image of the United States. Manifest Destiny was an idea that white Americans were specially capable and chosen by God to settle the western North American continent. Their mandate was to transform and colonize native lands in the American west into an ideal image of the agrarian East Coast, which was modeled after Europe. Painted in 1862 at the time of the Morrill Act and the Homestead Act, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way glorified settler activities including state seizure of Indigenous land. Simultaneously, the mural also championed loyalty to the Union side in the US Civil War, which had just begun.
Leutze created the painting using a mineral process known as stereochromy. He painted onto a plaster surface using a traditional fresco technique strengthened by using a water glass-based paint that dries to a shiny finish. The crowd of settlers depicted are standing on a rocky outcrop just east of the Rocky Mountains. They are beaming with radiant innocence, and are barely outfitted for the harsh elements. These men in shirtsleeves and women in bonnets and aprons have brought the aesthetics of the countryside deep into the plains. At the right side of the painting, cattle graze in a tranquil field while men and oxen wrestle a wagon that threatens to tip and derail the train. The cows and the dog that guards them evoke the genre paintings of famed French animal painter Rosa Bonheur, whose scenes of rural tranquility brought a sense of nostalgia into the hearts of newly urbanized industrialists who had recently arrived in major cities in Europe. In the US, rural nostalgia became a touchstone for newly arrived Europeans, poor farmers, and formerly enslaved freemen who sought the social and legal credibility that comes with property ownership. As the East Coast urbanized and industrialized, settler farmers pushed ever west, turning the dusty Midwestern prairie into cattle country and attacking Indigenous settlements that stood in their path.
In the center of the painting, a frontiersman is perched above the trail with a mother, her daughter, and infant in his arms. The family perches and prays, with the mother dressed in Marian blue like the Blessed Virgin, while the young son stands guard—a child with a rifle. The patriarch is dressed in the coonskin cap and fringed leather jacket of explorer Davy Crockett, and he invites the pious, fair-haired family to continue forward along a forest trail that two men are presently clearing with axes. A second frontiersman on a horse leads the train ahead toward a mountain pass. The other men in the group are dressed as pilgrims. They don’t yet have the confidence of the cowboys they are becoming. Columns of smoke in the distance suggest that there are settlements already active in the territory these settlers plan to chart. Horses and cattle represent exploration and settlement, while dogs appear at the feet of the riflemen, showing their loyalty to authority in a style that dates back to 17th century paintings of aristocracy by Velazquez. Along the painting’s ornate decorative border, we see two commemorative portraits: one of Daniel Boone, the other of William Clark.
At the peak of the outcrop and the artwork, two men raise the Stars and Stripes. This gesture of conquest refers to the pressure that built up in advance of the Civil War conflict, as advocates of emancipation and proponents of plantation slavery competed to claim and incorporate new territories that could tip the balance of free vs slave states in a favorable direction. The 1862 Homestead Act promised Union loyalists up to 160 acres of land as an incentive against joining the Confederacy. Leutze also included an emancipated African American man among his settlers. This man and his mule anticipate the promise of 1865 that Union freemen would be given “40 acres and a mule” to begin their lives after emancipation. The land that was given as postwar reparations for Black Americans was also taken from Indigenous people.
The land that functioned as postwar reparations for Black Americans was also appropriated from Indigenous people.
The wagon train is ramshackle, but as the light of the West meets their eyes, the settlers seem transfixed by a spiritual revelation. Several figures stare in rapture toward the light, while others beckon to the viewer outside the frame, welcoming. The darkness of the valley suggests that divine light has not yet touched the places where Indigenous communities dwell. The golden light and the wispy, cloudy skies over the snow-capped mountains are conventions of the picturesque, a British aesthetic philosophy promoted by artist William Gilpin that favored “agreeable beauty” in landscape scenes. Tranquil images of rough and hardscrabble landscapes, bathed in golden light, with faint if any traces of human settlement, were key to promoting colonial messages of religious authority and divine purpose as driving westward expansion. The Hudson River School painters popularized this aesthetic in the United States. Picturesque landscapes were fundamentally agrarian ones, shaped by industrialized farming and landscaping techniques. The presence of women in the painting supports the idea that settlement can and should domesticate the scene before us, making it safe even for infants of the white race.
The front of the wagon train passes along the lower edge of the painting, compressing the space so that we feel ourselves pressed into the frame from the outside. This large, wide, compressed composition reminds one of the groundbreaking work by Gustave Courbet, Burial at Ornans (1849–50). Courbet painted the crowd of figures in shortened perspective to suggest an awareness of the viewer outside the frame, who was broughtbringing them into the space of the painting. While Leutze may not have studied Courbet, he used a similar effect of crowding figures at close range into the lower quadrant of his monumental mural as a way of expanding the painting’s implied space into our own. This effect suggests that every onlooker is a settler, seeking illumination on the western shores.
The bottom of the painting contains a predella in the Italian Renaissance tradition, in which the San Francisco Bay is depicted in a lozenge form. The site shown is home to both the Marin Headlands nature preserve, and San Quentin State Prison, constructed in 1852 and visible at the lower left. These two sites represent the twin legacies of the Manifest Destiny project. In the Headlands, wildlife thrives, protected within a landscape of hiking trails and scenic overlooks, dotted with military installations from the second World War. At San Quentin, the lineages of plantation slavery and Indigenous land theft continue to put people of color behind bars at a disproportionate rate, vulnerable to violence, indoctrination, and disease.
At San Quentin, the lineages of plantation slavery and Indigenous land theft continue to put people of color behind bars at a disproportionate rate, vulnerable to violence, indoctrination, and disease.
As we collectively reconsider what kinds of heroes we want to enshrine in public life, Leutze’s mural deserves another look. For many, Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way is a treasured emblem of American unity against the fractures of the Civil War. For others, including the original inhabitants of these lands, the work continues to celebrate a history of violence, lawlessness, and ongoing cruelty toward their people. Leutze’s mural will always be an instructive piece of US history. Even so, it no longer seems an appropriate artwork to hang prominently in the US Capitol Building.