The Promised Land

Art can be analyzed in many ways. Art interpretation centers on composition and representation of the artwork. The interpretation explains the artistic elements, and the meaning of the piece. This post is an artistic analysis of the stercochromed mural, “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (Westward Ho),” 1861 by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze. Leutze was a German American history painter. He attended the Dusseldorf School of Painting. Leutze is best known for his painting, “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” This blog post centers on descriptions and explanations of the content, composition, color, light, and space of Leutze’s mural, “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (Westward Ho).”

 study for "Westward The Course of Empire Takes its Way (Westward Ho!)” 1861

The content can be broken down into two parts, the subject matter and the meaning behind the work. The subject of Leutze’s painting centers on pioneers and their westward expansion. There are men, women, and children portrayed in the piece. Leutze depicts covered wagons, horses, and mules to illustrate the journey of the pioneers. A rugged snow covered mountain is displayed in the background to help show the hardships that the pioneers are trying to escape from. Dark and bleak valleys symbolize the past troubles that burdened the pioneers. Leutze depicts some of the pioneers pointing to a beautiful horizon. The serene horizon represents the peace the pioneers are anticipating when they reach the Promised Land. The additional image below the mural is a representation of the San Francisco Bay. Two portraits can be seen beside the image of the San Francisco Bay. The figures represent William Clark, and Daniel Boone. Leutze illustrates both of these men to help convey the idea of integration. Ax men can be viewed in the background. The ax men are clearing the path for the caravan. The background illustrates Leutze brilliantly capturing the push by Americans westward.

The composition for Leutze’s piece is focused toward the base of the painting. The majority of the action in the painting is positioned in the bottom of the artwork. The activity in the lower portion of the piece centers on the pioneer caravan. When viewers move from the bottom portion of the piece to the top portion, negative space begins to consume the mural. Viewers are drawn to the woman reassuring her children that is sitting on top of the boulder. Leutze’s mural incorporates the rule of three. A large triangle links three figures in the painting. The rule of three connects the pioneer on a horse that is holding a shovel, the two men in the background that are standing on the boulder, and the women riding in the wagon. The composition in the piece moves from right to left. In the painting, the reality that the pioneers are traveling from emotional hardships to new found hope is clearly seen.

Leutze incorporates both color pallets in his mural. He uses warm colors to depict the calm horizon that many of his figures are pointing to. His focus of warm colors symbolizes the hopes and dreams of the pioneers. Leutze also incorporates cool colors to depict the snow covered mountains and dark valleys. His focus of cool colors represents the hard times that the pioneers faced. Leutze illustrates a calming sky over the San Francisco Bay. He also depicts a smooth and peaceful seascape. This helps to give viewers a sense of hope for the pioneers. Leutze’s use of lighting also illustrates the movement from desperation to hope. He portrays the pioneers emerging from dark and gloomy valleys. This creates an air of empathy for the people in the caravan. Viewers can sense their personal struggles. Leutze illustrates the pioneers migrating into a bright horizon. This represents the anticipation of hope will soon be realized. The use of dark and bright lighting gives viewers a real sense of the pioneers misfortunes and dreams.

Symbolism is deeply embedded in the image of, “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (Westward Ho).” Leutze only illustrates his figures as white pioneers. He depicts one African American in his painting that is a small boy, who is obviously a servant. This symbolizes the desire of Leutze to portray unity among races. In the background, near the large boulder, a cross is shown. Leutze uses the cross to symbolize the death and desperation of the pioneers. The symbol of hope is depicted with the bright horizon, and calm seascape. The symbol of despair is illustrated with the dark valley and treacherous mountains.

Leutze’s mural tells a story about the pioneers’ journey to the Promised Land. His use of symbols helps to illustrate the hardships the people in the caravan are trying to escape, along with their hopes for the future. The painting captures the true essence of the pioneers in their quest to expand westward. Leutze’s content, composition, color, light, and space accurately portray the mindset of the people in the caravan. “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (Westward Ho),” by Leutze depicts a true account of westward expansion.


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