The American West has always occupied a privileged place in popular imagination, conjuring a sense of drama and adventure, freedom and possibility, even for those who lived far from it. In the mid-19th
century, the seemingly incalculable scale and sublime beauty of the wild frontier found west of the Mississippi River engendered a vast array of creative responses from artists on both sides of the Atlantic. Celebrated painters such as Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran and Emanuel Leutze were inspired to capture its unique character onto canvas. Though Leutze was born in Germany in 1816 and spent most of his life living and working there, his paintings of the significant figures and historical events of 18th
century America rank as the most celebrated images of his oeuvre.
Painted in 1863, Indians Attacking a Wagon Train
represents one of Leutze’s finest achievements on the subject of Manifest Destiny and the struggle to tame the West. Highly ambitious and sophisticated both in both content and form, Indians Attacking a Wagon Train
exemplifies the unique synthesis of realism and idealism that allowed Leutze to successfully mythologize episodes of American history.
Leutze’s family immigrated to the United States when he was a young child, settling in Philadelphia in 1825. By 1834, he began to study under the tutelage of a local artist and determined to become a portraitist. Subsequent exhibitions of his work at the Artist’s Fund Society led local patrons to encourage his studies abroad and to provide the funds for his return to Europe. Leutze arrived in Düsseldorf, Germany in 1841 and enrolled at the Royal Art Academy as a student of history painting. The young artist was disenchanted by the strict instruction offered at the Academy and soon left to establish his own studio, but not before gaining rigorous instruction in the importance of careful draftsmanship, strong details and bold use of color. Following a two year tour of Germany and Italy, Leutze returned to Düsseldorf in 1845, where he became a leading figure in local artistic circles.
Although Leutze's career directly coincided with the boom in westward expansion in the United States, he did not engage with Native Americans as subject matter until he was well-established as a prominent historical painter. Transcontinental migration along the Oregon Trail began in earnest in 1843 and by 1860 nearly 500,000 people had crossed into the Pacific Coast states and Utah Territory. Numerous factors encouraged the early settlers to undertake this arduous journey, but prominent among them was the idea that the expansion of the United States across North America was preordained by God. John L. O’Sullivan first used the phrase Manifest Destiny to describe this religious justification for the migration, writing in his 1845 article “Annexation” that: “And that claim is by the right of our Manifest Destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent, which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us” (“Annexation,” United States Magazine and Democratic Review
, vol. 17, no. 1, July-August 1845, p. 6). Citizens moving into this unsettled territory zealously believed in their fated vocation to civilize the continent, an idea that many artists also communicated through their work during this period of rapid expansion. Confrontations between settlers and Native Americans became especially popular subject matter because of the inherent drama and action these incidents created (Fig. 1).
The democratic ideals upon which the United States was founded captivated Leutze from an early age. His esteem for them intensified as Germany’s own political landscape dramatically shifted in the late 1840s, giving rise to a series of rebellions that protested the traditionally autocratic system of governing. Leutze was not alone in his preoccupation with American systems and ideas as interest in the United States, explains Joseph D. Ketner, “was spread across a broad cross section of German society in the early nineteenth century. German scientists and naturalists such as Alexander von Humboldt, Paul Wilhelm von Württemberg, Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied, and Balduin Möllhausen explored and studied the North and South American continents for the origins of man and nature. To philosophers and writers of the Romantic Age, America embodied an idealized vision of unspoiled nature and the natural man…. This fascination with the New World carried over into the popular culture, where western novels and travel literature spread ideas about frontier America to a broad public” (“The Indian Painter in Düsseldorf,” Carl Wimar: Chronicler of the Missouri River Frontier
, New York, 1991, p. 32).
In 1851, Leutze completed what would become his most celebrated composition, Washington Crossing the Delaware
(The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) as a direct appeal to Germany’s liberal reformers. The painting demonstrates Leutze’s successful bridging of the principles of Düsseldorfian style and American historical subjects with his own democratic views (Fig. 2). However, Leutze’s iconic image of General George Washington leading his American Revolutionary Army across the Delaware River forsakes the accuracy of the historical event it depicts to privilege a moralizing tone and didactic intent. Indeed, Leuzte strives first and foremost to depict the General Washington as the heroic savior of the fledgling nation and to celebrate the idea of the triumph of democracy. The artist returned to the United States briefly in 1851 when Washington Crossing the Delaware
was first exhibited and by 1859 he decided to take a studio in New York’s Tenth Street Studio Building. Though his family remained in Düsseldorf, Leutze began his career anew as a painter of American military battles and heroes, seeking commissions from the United States Congress and other prominent patrons.
In 1859, Colonel Frederick Lander was hired by the U.S. Interior Department to survey a new wagon route north of Salt Lake City to California. The well-known landscape painter Albert Bierstadt joined the expedition to document the sights he saw along the way and it is believed that Leutze accompanied them as well, giving the artist his first unmediated experience of the West. The trip possibly inspired Leutze to explore the theme of westward expansion in his work, though the influence of his contemporaries like Bierstadt and Carl Wimar, Leuzte’s student in Düsseldorf, cannot be discounted. Wimar in particular achieved considerable success and recognition during his lifetime as a painter of Native American subjects (Fig. 3). While Bierstadt primarily engaged with the Edenic, pristine landscape he encountered west of the Mississippi (Fig. 4), Leutze focused instead on the intrepid pioneers who settled it to advance American values. He visualized these themes most explicitly in Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way
, the large-scale mural that he completed for the United States House of Representatives in 1862 (Fig. 5).
Painted just one year later in 1863, Indians Attacking a Wagon Train
presents a strikingly dynamic vision of the American frontier that underscores the romantic sense of adventure with which many conceived of it. Here Leutze depicts a party of pioneers just alerted to an impending attack of Native American warriors. Leutze does not explicitly render the confrontation; rather, he only suggests it, heightening the narrative element and dramatic tension of the scene. Leutze imbues his composition with dynamism by rendering the wagon train at a sharp diagonal that actively contrasts with the horizontality of the picture plane. The clouds of dust caused both by the fleeing party and the looming attackers on horseback further convey a sense of palpable energy. Details such as the desiccated ox skull in the foreground and the rifles that nearly every figure bears emphasize the danger that faces the pioneers at every moment of their journey. The artist’s realistic treatment of forms, color and space attests to his Düsseldorfian training, as does the meticulous draftsmanship with which he composes the scene. With the addition of the American flag that defiantly waves in the face of the impending attack, Leutze elevates Indians Attacking a Wagon Train
to a visual representation of national pride, Manifest Destiny and, ultimately, the American Dream.
The patriotic undertones and brilliant naturalism of Indians Attacking a Wagon Train draw immediate comparisons with other political images of the age, including Eugène Delacroix’s 1830 masterpiece Liberty Leading the People, in which the artist personifies the triumph of liberty over the tyranny of autocratic rule in France as a direct response to the July Revolution of 1830 (Fig. 6). Like Delacroix’s iconic painting, Indians Attacking a Wagon Train does not depict specific people or one particular event but rather seeks to expresses the spirit of a time and place. Indeed, Indians Attacking a Wagon Train is wholly evocative of Leutze’s conception of his own art: “But the artist, as a poet, should just form the clear thought as the groundwork,” he wrote in 1847, “and then adopt or create some anecdote from life, since painting can be but partially narrative and is essentially a contemplative art” (as quoted in Barbara S. Groseclose, Emanuel Leutze, 1816-1868: Freedom Is the Only King, Washington, D.C., 1975, p. 19).