American History PaintingAmerican artists of a hundred years or more ago who studied abroad were often captivated by the awe-inspiring tradition on the continent for massive history paintings. If for no other reason than they were often gargantuan in size, it had to mean that they were important. And of course, history was important, as anyone of the time could tell you. Also, to those producing it anyway, art was vitally important even though its monopoly on visual communication was rapidly fading. Today, motion pictures like Titanic and Gone With the Wind, or Television masterpieces such as Roots have taken over the place history painting once held simply because they are so much more effective in portraying it.
Pity the poor nineteenth century artist returning from Europe with the high-minded intentions of becoming the all-American history painter of all times. Artists like Morse, Mount, Cole, and dozens of others fell into this trap and paid dearly for their folly in terms of years of frustration. The fact was, there simply were not a significant number of grand palaces, massive cathedrals, or monstrous temples to government in which they could hang their idealistic masterpieces. Yet strangely, one artist did have a modicum of success in this endeavour. He was a German immigrant named Emanuel Leutze.
Leutze was born in Germany in 1816 and brought to this country by his parents as a child. In 1840, he returned to Germany to study art. It became a rather extended educational experience. It lasted some twenty years. It was there, in Dusseldorf, in 1851 that he painted his greatest, perhaps the greatest American history painting of all time. When he returned to this country with his 21-foot-long masterpiece it was immediately hailed a success, which led to additional commissions, among them a mural for the United States Capitol--Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way, painted in 1860. The name Leutze still not ring a bell? Then maybe you might recall his most famous painting--Washington Crossing the Delaware?
Contributed by Lane, Jim
30 June 1998