Washington Crossing the Delaware

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Washington Crossing the Delaware
Emanuel Leutze (American, Schwäbisch Gmünd 1816–1868 Washington, D.C.) - Washington Crossing the Delaware - Google Art Project.jpg
ArtistEmanuel Leutze
Year1851
TypeOil on canvas
Dimensions378.5 cm × 647.7 cm (149 in × 255 in)
LocationMetropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
 
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This article is about the 1851 painting. For the 1953 painting, see Washington Crossing the Delaware (1953 painting). For the poem, see Washington Crossing the Delaware (sonnet). For the actual event, see Washington's crossing of the Delaware River.
Washington Crossing the Delaware
Emanuel Leutze (American, Schwäbisch Gmünd 1816–1868 Washington, D.C.) - Washington Crossing the Delaware - Google Art Project.jpg
ArtistEmanuel Leutze
Year1851
TypeOil on canvas
Dimensions378.5 cm × 647.7 cm (149 in × 255 in)
LocationMetropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Washington Crossing the Delaware is an 1851 oil-on-canvas painting by the German American artist Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze. It commemorates General George Washington's crossing of the Delaware River on the night of December 25–26, 1776, during the American Revolutionary War. That action was the first move in a surprise attack against the Hessian forces at Trenton, New Jersey in the Battle of Trenton.

The original was part of the collection at the Kunsthalle in Bremen, Germany and was destroyed in a British air raid in 1942, during World War II. Leutze painted a second version which is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. There are many copies, one of which is in the West Wing reception area of the White House.

History[edit]

German-born Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze (1816–1868) grew up in America, then returned to Germany as an adult, where he conceived of the idea for this painting during the Revolutions of 1848. Hoping to encourage Europe's liberal reformers through the example of the American Revolution, and using American tourists and art students as models and assistants, among them Worthington Whittredge and Andreas Achenbach, Leutze finished the first painting in 1850. Just after it was completed, the first version was damaged by fire in his studio,[1] subsequently restored, and acquired by the Kunsthalle Bremen. In 1942, during World War II, it was destroyed in a bombing raid by the British Royal Air Force (which has led to a persistent joke that the raid was Britain's final retaliation for the American Revolution).

The second painting, a full-sized replica of the first, was begun in 1850 and placed on exhibition in New York in October 1851. More than 50,000 people viewed it. The painting was originally bought by Marshall O. Roberts for $10,000 (at the time, an enormous sum). After changing ownership several times, it was finally donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by John Stewart Kennedy in 1897.

The painting was loaned at least twice in its history. In the early 1950s, it was part of an exhibition in Dallas, Texas. Then, beginning in 1952, it was exhibited for several years at the United Methodist Church in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania, not far from the scene of the painting. Today, it is on exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In January 2002, the painting was defaced when a former Metropolitan Museum of Art guard glued a picture of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to it. No major damage was caused to the painting.[2]

Composition[edit]

The painting depicted on the New Jersey state quarter.

The painting is notable for its artistic composition. General Washington is emphasized by an unnaturally bright sky, while his face catches the upcoming sun. The colors consist of mostly dark tones, as is to be expected at dawn, but there are red highlights repeated throughout the painting. Foreshortening, perspective and the distant boats all lend depth to the painting and emphasize the boat carrying Washington.

The people in the boat represent a cross-section of the American colonies, including a man in a Scottish bonnet and a man of African descent facing backward next to each other in the front, western riflemen at the bow and stern, two farmers in broad-brimmed hats near the back (one with bandaged head), and an androgynous rower in a red shirt, possibly meant to be a woman in man's clothing. There is also a man at the back of the boat that looks to be Native American.

The man standing next to Washington and holding the flag is Lieutenant James Monroe, future President of the United States. Also, General Edward Hand is shown seated and holding his hat within the vessel.

Historical inaccuracies[edit]

The flag depicted is the original flag of the United States (the "Stars and Stripes"), the design of which did not exist at the time of Washington's crossing. The flag's design was specified in the June 14, 1777, Flag Resolution of the Second Continental Congress, and flew for the first time on September 3, 1777—well after Washington's crossing in 1776. The historically accurate flag would have been the Grand Union Flag, officially hoisted by Washington himself on January 1, 1776, at Cambridge, Massachusetts, as the standard of the Continental Army and the first national flag.

Artistic concerns motivated further deviations from historical (and physical) accuracy. For example, the boat (of the wrong model) looks too small to carry all occupants and stay afloat, but this emphasizes the struggle of the rowing soldiers. There are phantom light sources besides the upcoming sun, as can be seen on the face of the front rower and shadows on the water, to add depth. The crossing took place in the dead of night, so there ought to have been little natural light, but this would have made for a very different painting. The river is modeled after the Rhine, where ice tends to form in jagged chunks as pictured, not in broad sheets as is more common on the Delaware. (However, it is speculated that the Delaware River really was frozen over as depicted because of the Little Ice Age that was occurring at the time.)[citation needed] Also, the Delaware at what is now called Washington Crossing is far narrower than the river depicted in the painting. It was also raining during the crossing. Next, the men did not bring horses or field guns across the river in the boats, but instead had them transported by ferries. Finally, Washington's stance, obviously intended to depict him in a heroic fashion, would have been very hard to maintain in the stormy conditions of the crossing. Considering that he is standing in a rowboat, such a stance would have risked capsizing the boat. However, historian David Hackett Fischer has argued that everyone would have been standing up to avoid the icy water in the bottom of the boat (the actual boats used have higher sides).[3]

In popular culture[edit]

Censorship[edit]

At least three times in the 20th century, and as recently as 2002, American grade school administrators stepped in to alter textbook reproductions of the painting because Washington's watch fob was painted too close to his crotch for their comfort, possibly resembling male genitalia. In Georgia in 1999, for example, Muscogee County teachers' aides painted out the timepiece by hand on 2,300 copies.[6][7]

References[edit]

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]