Emanuel Leutze was a German-born painter who lived in America from 1825 to 1841 and again from 1859 and is usually considered a member of the American School. He is remembered mainly for his Washington Crossing the Delaware (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1851), painted in Düsseldorf, where he spent most of his career, and for another work that similarly appeals more for its patriotic sentiments than for any aesthetic merit – his large mural Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way (1861-62) one at the US Capitol, the other at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. His portraits and rare landscapes are more distinguished, but remain virtually unknown.
Leutze combined pioneer men and women, mountain guides, wagons, and mules to suggest a divinely ordained pilgrimage to the Promised Land of the western frontier. Within the left half of the picture is a depiction of the entrance to the San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate, which is being pointed to by the pilgrim seated atop the rock in the foreground. Within the right hemisphere of the painting is a depiction of a valley, representing the Valley of Darkness and symbolic of the troubles faced by explorers. The imagery is familiar imperial iconography and is regarded as a symbol of American exceptionalism and the realization of Manifest Destiny, ultimately leading to the evolution of the American Empire.