Sunday, March 4, 2007

Westward the Star of Empire...

I have a comment on Melrose's painting, "Westward the Star of Empire..." that we looked at Friday in class. We discussed the fact that the train in the painting was heading directly toward the viewer, and we discussed the reading of the painting from left to right, and we discussed the obligatory stumps, etc. My comment (and question, should anybody desire providing me with some insight) is about the spatial orientation of the painting. It is not clear whether the painting is facing East or West. Does it depict a sunrise (East) or sunset (West)? If it depicts a sunrise, and is thus facing East, then the viewer is gazing 'back East', and effectively running opposite to the onward 'development' created by the railroad.

If the painting orients the viewer towards the west, then the train is heading East. I'm under the impression that moving back east is symbolically like moving away from the frontier, and thus away from romanticized social development. In this instance, the sun would be setting on the west, indicating a symbolic end of an era. Clearly, that wouldn't make a lick of sense.

Based on the title, I'd assume that the train is heading west, and the viewer is gazing (almost longingly) upon the maimed eastern boundary.

It all seems rather counter-intuitive, since the painting was done in 1867.

Any insight?


Jim Tantillo said...

Great comment! for an article that discusses among other things the (generally) right to left orientation of so-called "Manifest Destiny paintings," see:

Roger Cushing Aikin, "Paintings of Manifest Destiny: Mapping the Nation (in Research Note)," American Art, Vol. 14, No. 3. (Autumn, 2000), pp. 78-89, which is available through JSTOR.

You'll need to be logged into Cornell's system to access the article.

Pat MacRae said...

Thanks! I'll check that out as soon an exam time is over.