An early happy Fourth of July from Art Snap! We’re celebrating with a painting commemorating a legendary moment during the Revolutionary War: General George Washington’s attack on the Hessians at Trenton on December 25, 1776. “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” an enormous oil painting by Emanuel Leutze, depicts the future president bathed in light at the helm of a cramped boat, with James Monroe bearing the Stars and Stripes. Although not the most historically accurate work, Leutze’s painting became an instant sensation and today is considered an icon of patriotism. Check it out at the Met if you ever get a chance.
1. “Washington Crossing the Delaware” has a fascinating history. Leutze, a German-born American who trained and painted in Germany, made two copies of the composition. The first was nearly ruined in a fire at his Düsseldorf workshop, but it was repaired and became part of the collection of the Bremen Kunsthalle, until it was destroyed in a WWII bomb raid. The second version was begun in 1850 and finished a year later. Leutze sent it to New York, where it impressed over 50,000 visitors, including the 8 year-old Henry James. It was purchased for the extraordinary sum of $10,000 and eventually gifted to the Met in 1897, where it hangs today.
2. Despite its outstanding initial reception, Leutze’s work is often derided by post-Modernists for its numerous inaccuracies. Diaries record that the nocturnal crossing took place under horrendous weather conditions. But the bright sky gives no indication of the sleet that pelted the soldiers. The icy crags studding the water are more akin to those of the Rhine, the model for the painting, than the ice floes of the Delaware. The flag was actually not in use at the time, and the boat was really a cargo boat with no seats. Lastly, the figure of Washington himself draws criticism, for at the time of the crossing, he was only 44 years old, not yet greying. However, this painting has achieved its iconic status not so much for its historical accuracy, but for the emotions it so effectively conveys. The rugged determination of Washington and his crew in an atmosphere of urgency appeal to our sense of humanity and patriotism, whether accurate or not.
3. Although “Washington Crossing the Delaware” is considered an emblem of American patriotism, sentiments of German nationalism actually fueled its creation. At the time, Germany was not yet unified. Leutze had fervent democratic leanings and supported the failed Revolutions of 1848. He used the American flag to represent a unified nation, the ideal that the American colonies achieved and what he and others in the German provinces strove for. The painting reflects his liberal principles in other ways too. The presence of a soldier of African descent is no coincidence, as Leutze was a strong abolitionist.