George Washington crossed the Delaware in 1776, but the the image that’s conjured whenever the event is mentioned was painted in 1851 by Emanuel Leutze. Commemorating one of the defining moments in American history, Washington Crossing the Delaware has become one of the most iconic American paintings of all time.
In his historic piece, Leutze included a vast array of different soldiers set in front of a soft cloudy sky. At the center of the piece a gallant, dauntless George Washington, his face flushed with color from the cold, is framed by the natural light of the sun. Washington is painted rising above his men to lead the seemingly endless fleet of boats (which creates an illusion of depth in the painting). The lead boat is headed by rowers, two of whom are white and the other African American, breaking up the ice, behind Washington the farmers are huddling up to protect from the cold, and a Native American (distinguished by his moccasins and satchel) is depicted steering the boat.
The African American soldier happens to be Prince Whipple, who was held as a slave by William Whipple. William Whipple was a merchant and member of the Continental Congress. One of the officers, James Monroe, is in the middle of the boat holding the only thing in the painting taller than Washington: the American flag. The flag is painted with the stars of the original thirteen colonies – a flag that wasn’t conceived of during the actual event – and a slant matching that of the oars which lead the viewer back to the stern face of Washington, a profile that has remained recognizable to this day.
It’s no mistake that this painting has become such a staple of American history. Leutze depicted an ideal view of Washington’s historic crossing. He painted Washington with the pose of a leader on par with classical paintings of great Roman warriors. This Neoclassical technique also shows itself in the deep blues, and muted whites. The use of powerful reds to highlight the clothing, on the other hand, was common of Romanticism, which was prominent at the time of the painting; it is this use of powerful, deep tones along with the soft backlighting that gives this painting much of its gravity.
Romanticism movement began in the 18th century as artists started to place heavy emphasis on feelings and emotions rather than painting or drawing what was simply there. The neoclassical movement, which began in the mid 18th century, is characterized by art and architecture that resembles aspects of Greek and Roman culture and art. By iconicizing Washington as a gallant, but real hero through the lighting, facial structure, posing, and color scheme, this painting is of both the Neoclassical and Romantic movement.
This globally celebrated painting was painted by Emanuel Leutze, a painter who grew up in America but moved to Germany in his adult life. Leutze first began painting Washington Crossing the Delaware in 1849 as an effort to inspire revolution in Europe by example. This first painting was destroyed during World War II in a bombing raid shortly after it was finished. Leutze then began the second version of the painting in 1850. The painting was sent to New York and has stayed on display in the Met since 1970. Washington Crossing the Delaware is shown in the Met encased in an ornate gold frame.
On the top of the frame, there is an eagle perched on top of a shield embossed with the American flag. There are also spears coming out from behind the eagle. Underneath, a sash reads “First in war, First in peace, First in the hearts of his countrymen”. These words come from the eulogy of George Washington written by Henry Lee, who was an important general in the Continental Army. Following George Washington’s passing, the Sixth Congress selected Henry Lee to write the eulogy. They believed that he was a the best candidate due to his lengthy friendship with Washington, and Lee proved to be a good choice.
Leutze put in ample effort to make his work as historically accurate as possible. For his time, the painting seems as spot on as it could get. Now that historians have more information, we are able to see that the painting actually has several inaccuracies. For example, in the painting, Washington and his men appear to be seated in a small rowboat. However, the boats used on that night would have been many times bigger with no room for sitting. There also wouldn’t have been room for Washington to stand in the dramatic manner he is in the painting without running the risk of overturning the boat.
Furthermore, though Prince Whipple is depicted in Leutze’s version of Washington Crossing the Delaware, it is not possible that Prince Whipple was actually on Washington’s boat. At the time of the crossing, Prince Whipple would have been with his master at the meeting of the Continental Congress in Maryland. Another example of inaccuracies in the painting is the flag. In the painting, James Monroe is holding the stars and stripes flag. However, Congress did not adopt the stars and stripes flag until a year after Washington crossed the Delaware, so if they were to be holding any flag, it wouldn’t be the one depicted in this painting.