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“Washington Crossing the Delaware” by Emanuel Leutze

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, MMA-NYC, 1851

“Washington Crossing the Delaware” by Emanuel Leutze

“Washington Crossing the Delaware” by Emanuel Leutze commemorates General George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River with the Continental Army on the night of Christmas 1776, during the American Revolutionary War. The composition shows General Washington highlighted by the white clouds in the background, as his face is lit by the upcoming sun. The distant boats and dramatic sky all provide heroic depth to the painting.

The people in the boat represent the diversity of the American colonies, including a man in a Scottish bonnet, a man of African descent, a western rifleman, two farmers in broad-brimmed hats near the back. There is also a man at the end of the boat wearing what appears to be Native American outfit representing the people in the United States of America.

The painting was intended to be a heroic depiction, so aesthetic concerns motivated the following deviations from historical and physical accuracy. For the history buffs, the following are some of the inaccuracies:

  • The flag depicted did not exist at the time of Washington’s crossing. The historically accurate flag would have been the Grand Union Flag.
  • The crossing took place in the dead of night, not with the sun above the horizon.
  • The boat is too small to carry all occupants, but this emphasises the struggle of the rowing soldiers.
  • The light that can be seen on the face of the forward rowers and shadows on the water, add depth however physically could not have come from the clouded sun source.
  • The river is modelled after the Rhine, where ice tends to form in jagged chunks as pictured, but not standard on the Delaware.
  • The actual crossing is far narrower than the river depicted in the painting.
  • It was storming and raining during the crossing.
  • The army did not bring horses or field guns across the river in the boats but had them transported by ferries.
  • Washington’s stance would have been tough to keep up in the stormy conditions of the crossing.

Leutze began his first version of this painting in 1849. It was damaged in his studio by fire in 1850 and although restored and acquired by the Kunsthalle Bremen, an art museum in Bremen, Germany, it was again destroyed in a bombing raid in 1942, during World War II. Leutze painted two more versions, one of which is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The other is now in possession of The Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona, Minnesota.

Emanuel Leutze was a German American history painter best known for this painting “Washington Crossing the Delaware” and “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way”.

Reflections

  • Could the artist have ever imagined that his original copy of this painting which was part of the collection in Germany, would be destroyed in an allied bombing raid in 1942, during World War II?
  • This painting was conceived by Emanuel Leutze when he was in Germany during the Revolutions of 1848 which were a series of political upheavals throughout Europe in 1848. Leutze conceived this painting to encourage Europe’s liberal reformers through the example of the American Revolution.
  • Do you find this painting inspiring? What specific features make this an inspiration painting?

Washington Crossing the Delaware

  • Title:                Washington Crossing the Delaware
  • Artist:               Emanuel Leutze
  • Year:                 1851
  • Medium:          Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions    378.5 × 647.7 cm (149 × 255 in)
  • Museum:         Metropolitan Museum of Art – MET

Emanuel Leutze

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“Happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected.” – George Washington

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Photo Credit: 1)Emanuel Leutze [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons