Washington Crossing the Delaware

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Washington Crossing the Delaware
Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, MMA-NYC, 1851.jpg
Artist Emanuel Leutze
Year 1851
Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions 378.5 cm × 647.7 cm (149 in × 255 in)
Location Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Washington Crossing the Delaware is an 1851 oil-on-canvas painting by the German-American artist Emanuel Leutze.

It commemorates General George Washington during his famous crossing of the Delaware River with the Continental Army 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 German Hessian allied mercenary forces at Trenton, New Jersey, in the Battle of Trenton on the morning of December 26.

The original was part of the collection at the Kunsthalle in Bremen, Germany, and was 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 was in the West Wing reception area of the White House in Washington, D.C.; but in March 2015, was put on display at The Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona, Minnesota.[1]


Washington Crossing the Delaware (1849–1850)
Original painting by Leutze

Emanuel Leutze grew up in America, then returned to Germany as an adult, where he conceived 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,[2] subsequently restored, and acquired by the Kunsthalle Bremen. On September 5, 1942, during World War II, it was destroyed in a bombing raid by the Allied forces.[3]

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 lent 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 attacks to it. No major damage was caused to the painting.[4]

The simple frame that had been with the painting for over 90 years turned out not to be the original frame that Leutze designed. A photograph taken by Mathew Brady in 1864 was found in the New York Historical Society in 2007 showing the painting in a spectacular eagle crested frame. The 12’ x 21’ carved replica frame was created using this photo by Eli Wilner & Company in New York City. The carved eagle-topped crest alone is 14' wide.


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 wearing what appears to be Native American garb to represent the idea that all people in the new United States of America were represented as present in the boat along with Washington on his way to victory and success.

According to the 1853 exhibition catalogue, the man standing next to Washington and holding the flag is Lieutenant James Monroe, future President of the United States, and the man leaning over the side is General Nathanael Greene.[5] 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 Somerville, Massachusetts, as the standard of the Continental Army and the first national flag. Multiple figures in the painting appear to be wearing bicorne hats, which in reality would not have existed yet, as the similar-looking but distinct tricorne would have still been widely worn in 1776. The bicorne as depicted in the painting would not have been adopted as a uniform component until the 1790s.

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. Also, the Delaware at what is now called Washington Crossing is far narrower than the river depicted in the painting. It was also snowing 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.[6] 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, while the actual Durham boats used were much larger having a flat bottom, higher sides, a broad beam (width) of some eight feet and a draft of 24-30 inches deep.[7]

In popular culture[edit]

  • "Washington Crossing the Delaware" is also the title of a 1936 sonnet by David Shulman. It refers to the scene in the painting, and is a 14-line rhyming sonnet of which every line is an anagram of the title.
  • William H. Powell produced a painting that owes an artistic debt to Luetze's work, depicting Oliver Perry transferring command from one ship to another during the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812. The original painting now hangs in the Ohio Statehouse, and Powell later created a larger, more light toned rendering of the same subject which hangs in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. In both of Powell's works, Perry is shown standing in a small boat rowed by several men in uniform. The Washington painting shows the direction of travel from right to left, and the Perry image shows a reverse direction of motion, but the two compositions are still similar. Both paintings feature one occupant of the boat with a bandaged head.
  • Washington Rallying the Troops at Monmouth, Leutze's companion piece to Washington Crossing the Delaware is displayed in the Heyns (East) Reading Room of Doe Library at the University of California, Berkeley.
  • In 1953, the American Pop Artist Larry Rivers painted his version of Washington Crossing the Delaware which is in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art in New York City.[8] The painting has also inspired copies by Roy Lichtenstein (an Abstract Expressionist variant painted c. 1951) and Robert Colescott (a parody titled "George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware" painted in 1975).
  • Grant Wood makes direct use of Leutze's painting in his own Daughters of Revolution. The painting is a direct jab at the D.A.R., scrutinizing what Wood interpreted as their unfounded elitism.
  • The painting is obtainable in the video game Animal Crossing as the "Classic Painting".
  • The movie poster of the 2011 film Winnie the Pooh features the characters of Winnie and his friends in a honeypot, floating in honey. Tigger is the rower, with Winnie stylized as Washington.[9][10]
  • A pastiche titled Jazzcats Crossing the Hudson is on the cover of the Madlib album Advanced Jazz.[11]
  • The "Dawn's Early Light" episode of the TV series Sleepy Hollow featured a story that referenced Washington's famous crossing, with the characters finding clues to a mystery hidden within the famous painting. The episode alluded to the idea that the flag carrier was actually Betsy Ross and the flag itself possessed magical powers.
  • In the TV Series The Last Man On Earth, main character Phil Miller uses the painting as a blanket[12]
  • This painting appeared in the 1983 Sesame Street Special Don't Eat the Pictures.
  • The painting and a version with only women in the boat play a part in the film Ocean's Eight.



External links[edit]