Westward Ho! – Symbols and Changes

So due to computer problems, stress, and other factors that have nothing to do with this course, I am lagging behind on the blog entries. With any luck, this post will be viewable well before class at 5:00 pm.

For my second Art Interpretation article, I’ve decided to take a look at the two versions of the Emmanuel Leutze painting, “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way (Westward Ho!)”. I find it interesting just how many differences there are between the two versions, and both variations give me different impressions.

Emmanuel Leutze, study for “Westward The Course of Empire Takes its Way (Westward Ho!)” (1861)

There are two versions of this painting, as we discussed in class. The first one, shown above, is a detailed study for the final piece. Depicted is a fantasized version of the American West. The people shown are pioneers clearing the way for travel and settling. Workers clear the trees, and figures on horseback direct the massive wagon train out from the mountains and into the California coastline. The hardships of the journey are compressed along with the landscape, depicting both triumph when the travelers arrive, and failure through death as a pioneer is laid to rest.

Visually, this variation of the painting emits a very majestic and holy vibe. A golden light which floods the area as the travelers approach their destination. It is as if the Holy Land is just around the bend. Although the cross carved into the stone seems to represent the grave of the fallen traveler, I also interpret this as another symbol for Manifest Destiny; the God-given right of the Americans to “conquer” the Western wilderness. Its holy symbolism and qualities combined with the portraits of both Native American and American leaders give me the impression that this piece is not only about the mandate for expansion, but for unifying all of America in God’s name. Of course, this interpretation comes only from the fact that Christianity was, as far as I actually know, prevalent during this time. The image of the cross pushes me in this direction in particular, as well as the mother and child at the focus of the image resembling Madonna iconography.

But this is only a study for the painting. And I believe its final variation loses some of its grand or majestic qualities.

Emmanuel Leutze, “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way (Westward Ho!)” (1861), US Capitol Building

Although many of the figures and postures are the same, there are many notable differences between the initial study, and the final version at in the United States’ Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Immediately, the colors are more diverse. The golden sunrise is still there, but more blues and reds are dispersed throughout the painting, giving a better sense of realism than the original. Certain figures’ sizes and positions have been changed. The position of the wagons is somewhat different. The rocky outcrop that the figure in the back is standing on is shaped differently. The mountain range to the right is more detailed than before. The Classical framing pattern is dimmer and different, with the placement of the two leaders having been changed to the sides rather than the corners.

There are several differences I noticed that I want to bring up. The first being that the burial or death scene with the cross is no longer present. The hardships of the journey feel more subdued here. There is one reference to death that I can pinpoint now, that being the cow skull and lone wagon wheel toward the right, but it’s not as obvious as it was before.

The second thing I want to point out is the overall rendering quality.  By this, I refer to the golden light that floods the study. That sense of holiness or grandeur seems to be lost in the saturation of blues and reds. However, in retrospect, I am unsure if the original golden feel was intentional or not. I recall from painting classes that a sepia under-painting is often used to make the final image richer. What we’re seeing in the study could very well be an under-painting, or perhaps a partially worked under-painting. But I would have to do more research to find out about this.

The third detail that I find peculiar about the final version are the trails of smoke coming from the horizon on the left. To me, this looks like the West has already been settled. Whether or not this refers to Native Americans or pioneer settlements is unclear. But perhaps, thinking about this painting like a narrative, the smoke trails indicate the success of Westward expansion and the achievement of Manifest Destiny.

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