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Washington Crossing the Delaware is the iconic painting of America during the Revolutionary War. There were actually three paintings in the original series, created by the German-American artist Emanuel Leutze.
About the Painter and the Original Versions of the Painting
Emanuel Leutze grew up in America, but returned to Germany as an adult, where he lived in a town near Düsseldorf. He conceived the idea for Washington Crossing the Delaware during the European Revolutions of 1848, hoping to encourage liberal reformist movements through the example of the American Revolution (Wikipedia).
As he had no first-hand American references, he had to use American tourists as models and depicted the landscape based on the scenery along the Rhine where he lived (ibid). He finished the first version of the painting in 1850, utilizing the artistic help of Düsseldorf Art Academy painters like Worthington Whittredge and Andreas Achenbach (ibid). Unfortunately, the first version of the painting was damaged by fire. Many years later the painting was restored and was acquired by the Kunsthalle Bremen, where it remained until destroyed by an Allied forces bombing in the Second World War.
The second painting was a full-sized copy of the original. Leutze began the painting in 1850 and placed it on exhibition in New York in 1851. More than 50,000 people viewed the painting. According to Wikipedia, it was bought by Marshall O. Roberts for $10,000 (roughly $350,000 today). After changing hands several times, the painting was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City by John Stewart Kennedy in 1897 (ibid).
The frame shown in the above photo is based on the original designed by Leutze. The carved eagle-topped crest alone is 14 feet wide!
A third and smaller version of the original painting hung in the White House for many years. In 2014 it was acquired by Mary Burrichter and Bob Kierlin, founders of the Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona, Minnesota. The painting is currently on display in the American collection there (ibid).
What the Painting Depicts
The painting Washington Crossing the Delaware depicts Washington’s surprise attack on a Hessian garrison of roughly 1,400 soldiers located around Trenton, New Jersey on Christmas night in 1776 (www.mountvernon.org).
Hoping to raise sagging morale with a quick victory, Washington planned to attack from three different crossings. One force of 1,200 Philadelphia militia and 600 Continentals under Col. Cadwalader was to cross near Burlington, NJ. General James Ewings’s forces of 800 Philadelphians were to cross at Trenton and take up defense positions. Washington planned to cross with 2,400 soldiers roughly 10 miles north of Trenton (ibid).
But nature turned against their plans. A major snow and sleet storm developed and both of the first two attacks were thwarted by the ice-choked river. Washington succeeded in crossing, but was delayed by three hours. The men in his expedition were tired, hungry and poorly dressed for the storm. Washington contemplated turning back but later wrote, “…as I was certain there was no making a retreat without being discovered and harassed on repassing the River, I determined to push on at all Events”(ibid).
Although the painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware depicts him in a rowboat, the actual vessels they used were sturdy, shallow draft cargo boats of 40 to 60 feet in length. A great amount of artillery was transported with the soldiers, including 18 cannons, horses and ammunition (ibid). Though the painting suggests that the crossing was at a wide point in the river, the actual crossing point was less than 300 yards wide. The boats were probably fixed to a wire strung across the river (ibid).
Some Wrong Details Added for Impact
Art critic Isaac Kaplan points out in his article ‘This Iconic American History Painting Gets the Facts Wrong’ (www.Artsy.net) that if Washington had truly been perched on the boat’s edge as depicted, he would have fallen into the water and drowned. Because the boats were shallow-bottomed, it is likely though that all passengers would have been standing, because the bottoms would have been cold and covered in water.
The lighting in the painting suggests that the attack is happening at daybreak. Although the actual attack was in the night, we can perhaps interpret this as an intended metaphor for the dawn of new hope in the revolutionary movement.
The flag that Washington is holding in his hand is not the one used in 1776, when the crossing took place. It was adopted about a year later (ibid). Also the icebergs are probably not a realistic rendering of the ice sheets that form on the Delaware in the winter. Again, this might be an intended metaphor for the hardships of the war.
Another clearly intended metaphor is the representation of the people in the boat. They represent a cross-section of the American colonies, including a man in a Scottish bonnet and a man of African decent facing backward next to each other in the front, western riflemen placed at the bow and stern, two farmers near the back, and an androgynous rower in a red shirt, possibly a woman in a man’s clothing. There is also a man at the back of the boat in Native American clothing. (Wikipedia).
What the Crossing Might Have Actually Looked Like
No-one would ever want to deny Washington Crossing the Delaware is iconic American art. But recently, the historical painter Mort Künstler was commissioned by an American Congressman to make a painting based on the historical truths of the crossing. After much research on location and using the guidance of local historians, Mr. Künstler has provided us with a different depiction of the event. If you would like to look at his rendering, here is a link to an article in a New York Times blog: https://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/23/a-famous-painting-meets-its-more-factual-match/.