Ah, he stands – sailor crew went going.
And so this general watches rowing.
He hastens – winter again grows cold.
A wet crew gain Hessian stronghold.
—the third stanza to the 1936 sonnet,
Washington Crossing the Delaware
by David Shulman (1912–2004) Every line of the sonnet is an anagram of the title written by a 23-year-old Mr. Shulman.
It was not a night of caroling, opening presents and a turkey dinner for General George Washington and 12,500 members of the Continental Army on Christmas 1776. Not at all! They launched a surprise attack at Trenton, New Jersey on the 1,400 mercenary German Hessian soldiers hired by England’s King George III.
Washington Crossing the Delaware, a well-recognized image in American art, offers the prelude to the Battle of Trenton. Therefore, it may come as a surprise that it was not painted by an American artist in the United States. It was painted by Emanuel Leutze (1816–1868); born in Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany, he painted it in Düsseldorf in 1851. And he painted two versions of the scene.
Herr Leutze began the first canvas in 1849, just after Germany’s own revolution had failed. The first one was damaged during a fire in his studio; then it was destroyed in World War II during a bombing raid by the Allies. The second version was begun in 1850; later brought to New York, for exhibit at a gallery in October 1851. Two years later Marshall O. Roberts, a successful investor, bought the work for $10,000, an unheard-of price to pay for a painting at the time. Following Mr. Roberts’ death in 1880, the work passed to his estate until 1897; that year it was sold to John S. Kennedy, who donated it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1950, because of its crowd-pleasing, patriotic qualities, The Met sent the painting on a mini-U.S. tour. First it was sent to Dallas, Texas, then to a location near the actual river crossing, returning to The Met in 1970.
The Met conserved the painting over a four-year period, from 2007 to 2011. At the same time a new fame was created for it. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has reframed the painting several times since receiving it. A very pedestrian frame had surrounded the picture since 1980; but a photo by Matthew Brady was discovered in the early 2000s. It showed the painting in a very elaborate, gold-leafed frame at the 1864 Art Exhibition at the Metropolitan Fair in Aid of the United States Sanitary Commission, which was a charity connected with the American Civil War relief efforts.
A replica frame was carefully crafted by Eli Wilner & Company at its 11,000-square-foot studio, a former eggroll factory in Long Island City, Queens. Master woodcarver, Félix Terán, who is from a family of woodcarvers in San Antonia de Ibarra, an Ecuadorian town of woodcarvers, crafted the eagle and trophies at the frame’s center, as well as the round shields and flourishes at the four corners.
Emanuel Leutze’s family immigrated to the United States from Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany; he was 9 years old. His career was focused mostly on portraiture; but Herr Leutze’s renown today stems from his history paintings; and chief among these, Washington Crossing the Delaware is the best known and the most ambitious. Its scale and patriotic fervor are colossal.
General Washington and two of his officers stand out, wearing their blue coats. The remaining nine men are members of the ragtag Continental Army, representing the inclusive nature that is America. Of the three men serving as icebreakers at the bow of the boat, one is African-American, another wears a tartan-patterned beret of a Scotsman, and the third wears a frontiersman’s coonskin cap. The broad-brimmed hats identify two men as farmers; they huddle together at the center of the boat to keep warm. A Native American at the stern is distinguished by his moccasins, pants, and hat. All of it is highly romanticized nationalism, typical era worldwide.
Herr Leutze took his subject from an important turning point in the American War for Independence. The monumental scale of the composition—it measures more than 12 feet high by 21 feet wide—is fitting for the importance of this historic event.
For all its historic importance Herr Leutze has taken great artistic license. A lack of historical accuracy can be seen throughout the painting. For starters, Betsy Ross’ “Stars and Stripes,” was not used until September 1777. From a safety point-of-view the size of the boat is too small to accommodate the twelve men occupying it.
The crossing took place late at night; but Herr Leutze shows the event at the break of dawn. In addition, where General Washington and the Continental Army crossed the Delaware, the river is narrow; instead Herr Leutze paints a river with the width and ice formations more typical of Germany’s Rhine, which passes through Düsseldorf. Also defying safety precautions and logic, Herr Leuzte shows the general standing upright. This is a precarious position for anyone, especially for a six-foot-three-inch tall man in a low-walled rowboat.
If not the accurate rendering of an important historic event, what is it that lends Washington Crossing the Delaware its power? The primary goal of Herr Leutze was to create a work of art that showed General Washington and the Colonial-American cause in the light of great honor and glory. He also wanted to highlight a military action of great significance. In doing so, he created one of the most widely published images in the history of American art.
Read these other articles we have written about how George Washington is interpreted in art around New York.
George Washington as Roman Emperor
George Washington: the Ultimate Veteran
A Birthday Tribute to George Washington
In Washington’s Good Company
Walk About New York’s guided walking tours are focused on art, history, and the quirky stories connecting them. We can design a Specialty Tour, including a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see Washington Crossing the Delaware. Take the Tour; Know More!
ALL PHOTOS AND TEXT, EXCEPT CREDITED QUOTES, © THE AUTHOR 2016