Envisioning Manifest Destiny

Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way

Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (mural study for the United States Capitol building), 1861, oil on canvas, 84.5 x 110.1 cm (Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Sara Carr Upton, 1931.6.1). Speakers: Carol Wilson and Dr. Steven Zucker

Test your knowledge with a quiz

Leutze, Westward the Course of Empire

Congratulations - you have completed Leutze, Westward the Course of Empire. You scored %%SCORE%% out of %%TOTAL%%. Your performance has been rated as %%RATING%%
Your answers are highlighted below.
Shaded items are complete.

Key points

  • In this study for a public mural at the U.S. Capitol Building, Emmanuel Leutze visualized the concept of Manifest Destiny, combining religious and patriotic imagery to glorify westward expansion.
  • In an era when few Americans had traveled west, Leutze brings together a variety of landforms and artefacts to conjure this unfamiliar terrain and create a sense of drama and excitement. He depicted the land as uncharted territory, however, erasing its recent history as part of Mexico and the Native Americans who were displaced by American settlers.
  • In the early years of the American Civil War, Leutze emphasized the west as a land of promise and opportunity that could restore national unity. After reading a draft of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, he added an African-American figure to the final mural in the Capitol Building.

Go deeper

See this work at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

See Leutze’s mural at the U.S. Capitol

Read more about Manifest Destiny and U.S. territorial expansion

View primary source documents and learn more about Manifest Destiny in the 19th century

America’s Manifest Destiny – American Experience in the Classroom (The Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Teaching poster on Leutze’s Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (The Smithsonian American Art Museum)

TEDEd lesson: Reading a History Painting (The Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Detail of cartoon for Leutze’s Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (The Smithsonian American Art Museum)

U.S. Capitol Visitor Center on Leutze’s mural

Digital Public Library of America on Leutze’s mural

More to think about

In this celebration of westward expansion, Emmanuel Leutze alludes to California through small details in the picture, but his subject focuses primarily around the settlers and their journey. Why do you think he chose to emphasize their trek instead of their final destination? How might the painting’s meaning be different if he had given more attention to where these figures settled?

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.