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What's wrong with this painting?


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Wouldn't it have been great if a group of news reporters with high tech cameras and sound equipment lined the shores of the Delaware River as the troops climbed into boats and slowly crossed on December 25, 1776? We would know exactly what it looked like from many perspectives, what was said, and who was involved. Unfortunately, those things weren't available in 1776 and we are left with only letters, diary accounts, reports, and an idea of the items used by the troops and General Washington that night. That meant that artists like Emmanuel Leutze, who painted this picture in 1851, did not know how the crossing of the Delaware looked either. So, do we think he got the painting close to how it looked? Well...let's look at a few details about the night of December 25th and you can judge for yourself.

First of all, it was night. That wonderful light coming through the clouds to highlight General Washington was far from the reality of the night. The crossing began in the late afternoon of December 25th...the sun, if it had been out, would have set by then. Very little light would have been visible outside of a few lanterns with candlelight.

Compounding the darkness and certainly indicating that no sun was available, is the fact that diary account after diary account talk of the horrible weather that accompanied the crossing. Rain to sleet to snow pelted the troops and made the conditions difficult and disheartening. One account mentions that it was supposed to be a nearly full moon that night, yet you could barely see the moon as the clouds made it impossible to view.

The darkness of the night and the darkness of the murky river water made for a dangerous mission. The Delaware River was believed to be at flood stage at the time of the crossing. However, the river in the painting is not modeled after the Delaware, but rather the Rhine River in Germany. Mr. Leutze's family was originally from Germany. (At the time this region of Europe comprised individual provinces and city-states rather than the united country we think of today.) Emmanuel had gone to Germany to study art and painted this work, his most popular, while there. The ice that forms in the Delaware River tends to be large, solid sheets that break into floes in the River. Some of these would have been quite large and would have constantly pounded into the side of the boats as the current pushed them down river. However, in the painting, the ice tends to be depicted as ice caps and crags instead of the way the Delaware River still looks when ice forms.

durham
Durham boat.

The boats would have taken quite a beating as they were rowed back and forth across the River. One of the favorite comments of folks as they view Mr. Leutze's painting is that they would not be standing in the boat like General Washington was in the painting. I think most folks would agree that standing in the type of row boat that is seen in the picture would not be very safe, especially on a fast flowing river. This is certainly where Emmanuel used the most artistic license in his painting. The Durham boats which were gathered for the tasks are replicated and on view today at the Park. Anyone who looks at them knows that the boat in the painting is not exactly what was used to transport the troops. The Durham boats, designed for iron ore and transporting cargo, had no seats. All the troops would have been standing in some way. When standing within a Durham boat, the sides come well above the waist of someone of average height. General Washington would have been standing safely within the sides of the boat. Rowers would be standing within the boat with the troops, while men operating setting poles would walk/stand on the wide planks on the sides of the boats. A man to operate a steering sweep would also stand on the end of the boat which was a wider platform that formed into a point. Horses and cannons were probably taken across the River on ferry boats and other watercrafts and not the Durham boats. The cannons were the last items to cross the River.

Other people and items within the boat have also raised questions. According to descriptions of the painting, future President James Monroe is supposedly the young man holding the flag in the painting. James Monroe was a young man from Virginia when he left school to join the army in the 1770's. He was present at the crossing and subsequent battles. He was a lieutenant at the time and we have no reason to believe he would have been in the same boat as General Washington. The flag itself raises many questions. The flag in the painting is what is known as the "Betsy Ross" version. Though the date of when it was developed and used is sometimes debated, it is generally accepted that this would not have been a flag carried by the army at the time of the crossing. In addition, most units would have had their own state or regimental flag as their main colors. Like the character said to be James Monroe, the rower by Washington's knee, who is a person of color, is said to be a man named Prince Whipple. Though Prince Whipple was an African who served in the Revolution, there is no documentation to state that Prince Whipple was present at the crossing. There were many people of color present at the crossing as the Marbleheader unit from Massachusetts was a well integrated group of seafaring men. They took the lead role in rowing General Washington and his troops across the River.

The image of the good General himself is also suspect. We are accustomed to seeing General Washington as a wise older gentleman...very similar to the paintings done of him as President. At the time of the Crossing, George Washington was only about 44 years of age. He was still fairly young looking — at least not graying — according to the other likenesses of him done in the mid to late 1770's by contemporary artists. The gentleman in Leutze's painting shows us an older man than Washington was instead of the middle-aged man who would have been present at the crossing.

What does the painting have right?

With all of the apparent flaws, it would seem that this painting is not a good representation of a moment in time. Perhaps in the details much artistic license was used. However, the determination, anguish and monumental nature of the event depicted are clearly seen. Certainly, a small group of men, banded together to fight a common cause is a lasting impression from the image. One also gets the sense of the heroic nature assigned to General Washington from this painting. The painting may fail in historic detail but it certainly appeals to humanity on many other levels...whether they are emotional, patriotic or simply appreciative of a moment in time.

Where can I see the painting?

The image on display in the auditorium of Washington Crossing Historic Park in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania, is a photomural of Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emmanuel Leutze. This digitally mastered photomural was created in 1998 by Muralite Portable Display Systems of Saint Paul, Minnesota. The original image by Emmanuel Leutze from which this was produced hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The original painting is oil on canvas and is 12ft. 5in. x 21ft. 3in. The image on display at the Park is an exact replica.

Are there other versions of Washington Crossing the Delaware in painting form?

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in their last years of life discussed in correspondence who they felt were qualified to write the official history of the American Revolution. Though some authors tried to undertake the task soon after the Revolution, few met with the blessing of these architects of the country. However, as for commemorative artwork, no one waited for the Revolution to end to put brush to canvas. Daring feats, battles, and victories were artistic fodder to many and a most favorite topic for creativity was Washington's crossing of the Delaware River and the subsequent Battles of Trenton and Princeton. Including our modern times, this topic continues to inspire and hold meaning for countless artists and crafters.

Some veterans of the conflict were among the first to capture the moments, namely Jonathan Trumball and the Peale brothers. These artists who had served with Washington were creating artwork for a new nation. They were creating symbols of patriotism and grandeur in sacrifice. Accuracy of the moment did not always take precedent as artistic license, positive promotion and the creation of a national identity were the goals of the moment, and the renderings were instantly celebrated for all those reasons.

During the 1800's countless paintings, engravings and printed depictions of these events were produced and eagerly consumed by the masses. Thomas Sully, Currier and Ives and Emmanuel Leutze were among these artists. However, it was Leutze's 1851 image that would achieve iconographic status. Though, as before, accuracy was secondary to political agenda and public demand, these images of pageantry and gallantry would show us scenes of national events in a way in which we as a nation wanted them to be seen and remembered. It is rather interesting that Leutze's strong political agenda in addressing the topic was not meant for, nor did it involve, an American audience, yet the image still endures as one of the most recognizable symbols of triumph over adversity as well as a banner, akin to the Statue of Liberty, for America itself.

From Norman Rockwell to Larry Rivers to Charles Schultz, Leutze's image and the topic of Washington Crossing the Delaware continues to be interpreted in unique ways as each generation assigns its values and agenda to the scene. One can only imagine where the depictions of that night will take us in the future

More about Emmanuel Leutze, his times, his vision and Washington Crossing the Delaware

Victorian poet, William Gilmore Simms wrote, "A national history, preserved by a national poem, becomes, in fact, a national religion." When thinking of Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emmanuel Leutze, this statement can also be applied to a national painting. Though a work of art for an American audience was not the foremost and only intent of Leutze, when he finished his most famous work in 1851 it was immediately embraced, consecrated and, in various forms, reproduced ad infinitum in the United States.

Leutze's version was not the first portrayal of this moment in time for the Revolutionary army, after demoralizing defeats and retreats through New York and the Jersies, prior to the tide-turning Battle of Trenton, and it certainly was not the last stroke of paint applied to canvas regarding the subject. However, it is the only image of this event which lingers in our memories to the point where we can barely look at the painting anew. In other words, our mind tells us what we will see before our eyes engage the work. It is also a painting in which its fame and subject matter overshadow the fame of the artist and the time period in which it was painted and, in this, the purpose of the painting is lost.

Emanuel Leutze was born in the German city-state of Wurttemberg on May 24, 1816. His life began during a turbulent time in German history. Inspired by the American and French Revolutions, the early to mid 1800s saw much political unrest in Europe. The German/Prussian provinces were newly divided into small duchies, each with a separate monarch as a result of Napoleon's attempt at an Empire. (Napoleon's vision had changed borders, maps and ownership of each land he touched.) Wurttemberg was ruled by Wilhelm I, a Russian connected King with a lavish court and an aristocratic lifestyle. Many Wurttemberg people wished to be run by a democratic government and not a king. They also craved a separation of church and state still unknown in most of Europe. Gottlieb Leutze, Emanuel's father, was an artisan who was part of a group of revolutionaries in Wurttemburg actively striving toward the overthrow of the monarchy. After, it is assumed, Gottlieb put himself into political turmoil in his home town, he and his family escaped to Philadelphia in 1825. In Philadelphia, Gottlieb hoped to find his desired ideals of freedom emulated. Emanuel was raised on the democratic concepts for which Gottlieb fought.

In 1831, Gottlieb died. At this time, Emanuel was said to have begun portrait painting to help support his family. By 1837, Emanuel was working as an itinerant artist and received encouragement and support from his American patrons to go to Europe to study art. In the beginning of the 1840s Leutze followed this advice and enrolled in the Royal Düsseldorf Academy. Düsseldorf, though hardly a place of cutting-edge art likened to Paris or Rome, was well known for purism and respected for historical paintings and portraiture. The Düsseldorf Academy had a large American following as well as a notable place in traditional European art. It was there that Leutze's political upbringing fused with his art. It was at the Academy that Leutze became familiar with a work entitled, Hussite Preaching by a well known German artist named Lessing. The painting showed the past event of Reformer John Huss striving to bring the Counter-Reformation to Catholic Germanic culture. However, though this subject matter occurred centuries before the 1800s, Lessing used the symbolism of this past event to make a statement on the current events of Düsseldorf where the struggle for independence from the monarchy and the church was still alive.

Leutze became heavily involved within the political and artistic arenas. He saw the German provinces of his day continue to rally in the same causes with which his father had identified in Emanuel's youth and compared the German struggle with the struggle for American independence. He left the Academy to form an independent art group which separated him from the Academy's ties to the Royal government. He left his studies of portraiture and began to use historic events in modern landscapes to portray his inner political convictions. Among his early attempts, he used a series of paintings on Columbus and Elizabethan subjects such as Oliver Cromwell to feed the Germanic region's fire for reform. His goal, as with Lessing, was not accuracy nor historical teaching but rather the message in his medium. In 1847, Leutze wrote to a friend about this very concept and stated his "conviction that a thorough poetical treatment of a picture required that the anecdote should not be so much the subject, as the means of conveying some one clear idea, which is to be the inspiration of the picture." This concept of painting kept true to form with the greater romantic art movement of the time. (Though others chose past historical topics to glorify the beauty and simplicity of the past vs. the modern age of the Industrial Revolution, there was still a message of reform in their works similar to Leutze's motivation.)

The political climate fueled by many philosophers and artists continued to intensify in the Germanic regions in 1848. The need for change was inspired further with writings by Marx and Engle. A group of political reformers known as the Forty-eighters made great attempts through rallies, artwork, writings and even small skirmishes to bring about political change. However, the attempts were thwarted and left many in despair.

It was during the failure of the Forty-eighters, when hope had been lost, that Leutze began to paint Washington Crossing the Delaware. He began the work in 1849 and was nearly finished when fire partially destroyed his Düsseldorf studio including parts of the painting. He repaired the painting immediately. Upon its completion, it was displayed throughout the German provinces. (This first version was completely destroyed during the bombing raids of World War II.) After the repair, Leutze executed a copy of the same painting. This one was sent to America and displayed in New York and Washington D. C. (This version is currently housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.) It received instant fame. The American audience loved it for it met the current trends of romantic historic images. As long as it had a convincing visual accuracy and it handled historic topics in a patriotic manner, it was acceptable even if historical accuracy was missing. Leutze modeled the Delaware River in the painting after the Rhine and had possibly never seen a Durham boat in his life. Did he know the Crossing took place at night? One can only speculate that if he knew, it was unimportant for his purpose. The flag, though not officially adopted in December of 1776, was representative of a unified nation. A unified nation was something that many people in Germany wanted. The painting's historical accuracy did not matter. What did matter was that the heroism of a group of untrained men against an impressive foe in order to obtain independence was portrayed. It was also not lost on the German people that the foe Washington was up against in December of 1776 was not only the British, but the Hessian soldiers. The provinces of Hesse-Cassel Brunswick and Hesse Hanau, had long been known for using their trained military as a way to make money by "renting" their soldiers to other kings. This use of the Hessians military was seen as a symbol of the political abuses in the German states at the time. To defeat the Hessians, as Washington did, would have hit at the root of a long-standing problem in the minds of the German people. The painting also took on a new symbolism as the 1840's saw much immigration to the United States. Many people leaving their countries by a treacherous boat ride, seeking opportunity and freedom in the United States, could relate to some of the hardships endured and concepts believed by Washington's troops. It became the ultimate symbol for triumph over adversity.

After seeing his dream of independence die in Düsseldorf and after having been denounced as a rebel like his father, Leutze returned to America around 1859. After the fame of Washington Crossing the Delaware, Leutze won a commission to paint a mural for the US Capitol. His mural entitled, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, was completed in 1860. It was his last major recognized work. He died of a supposed stroke on July 18, 1868 in Washington D. C.

As time continued, Washington Crossing the Delaware turned from an historic ideal with a contemporary lesson into an American icon. Children were taught patriotism in view of it, textbooks taught history on the pages beside it, and soldiers were recruited under it as they were rallied to causes that Washington's men would have understood. The image became so benign to the eyes and so laden with American pride, that it was often attacked by modern artists as a symbolic representation of America itself. Yet, long after Leutze and the political climate of his day, the image endures. Today, visitors to Washington Crossing Historic Park continue to take time to view an exact, digitally mastered replica of Leutze's work housed in the site's auditorium. Thousands take a moment to reflect by it every year and ponder neither on its flaws nor Leutze's real motivation, but rather on the significance one small event may have on the course of history.