The mural spans the entire wall between the second and third stories of the House’s Western Grand Stairwell, from the floor up to the 20-foot-high ceiling, but the small details in “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” are abundant in the landscape of the mountain range and the intricately painted faces of the people.
The shading in the settlers’ shadows on the rocks or the sternness on the bull’s face in the bottom right corner of the painting might go unnoticed by a staffer hurrying by on the way to a meeting, but the magnitude of this painting makes it almost impossible not to stop and stare.
The piece, inspired by George Berkeley’s poem “Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America,” depicts a large group of frontier settlers with their caravan of wagons and livestock crossing over the Continental Divide, coming out of their dark journey in what looks like a race to the golden sunset over San Francisco Bay.
Man, woman, child and beast are shown rumbling through the mountain pass, exuding the legendary tenacity and fortitude characteristic of America’s pioneers.
Mothers hold their children, weary but with hopeful expressions, as they head out of the wilderness and toward the ocean. Fathers hold their heads high after surviving the mountain landscape, and with the finish line finally in sight. One man with a raccoon-skin cap holds his family in his arms and gestures to the Pacific Ocean as if to say, “We have arrived.”
Eagles soar overhead as two men scale a cliff behind the wagon train, one of them waving his cap at the passersby, the other making his way up to plant an American flag on the rock.
The purple glow of the sun setting over the ocean radiates off the snow-capped Rocky Mountains as the settlers slash their way through the pass below.
“It’s an amazing painting,” said Barbara Wolanin, curator for the Architect of the Capitol. “This is the only thing in the Capitol that we have like this.”
Leutze painted the mural in a German style called Stereochromy, which involves sealing the pigments with a silica solution to preserve and enhance the colors. Officials placed the painting in the Western Grand Stairwell because the natural light gleaming in from the windows nearby worked well with the special painting technique used, Wolanin said. But recent additions to the Capitol building block a bit of the sunlight and dull the colors slightly.
“It would have been a lot more colorful with the sunlight,” she said.
The painting portrays the triumph in settling new land in America and celebrates the exploration and emancipation of the age, she said.
Leutze added a freed slave to the final mural, a detail he hadn’t included in three previous oil sketches. Wolanin said the artist might have made this addition after being inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.
Berkeley’s poem promotes the conquest and ideals of the new land. The artwork’s title appears in the final stanza:
Westward the course of empire takes its way;
The four first Acts already past,
A fifth shall close the Drama with the day;
Time’s noblest offspring is the last.
The mural’s borders contain three portraits: At right appear pioneers Daniel Boone and William Clark; on the left, above the mural, is an eagle holding in its wings two men, representing peace and liberty; and at bottom, a landscape of San Francisco Bay.
Leutze is also well-known for his 1851 painting, “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” which is done in a similar style and now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Artwork: “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way”
Location: The House’s Western Grand Stairwell