December 2016

Washington Crossing the Delaware

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Emanuel Leutze's depiction of General George Washington's heroic crossing of the Delaware River on the night of December 25-26, 1776, is justly among the most beloved works of American art, and its appeal extends to the young. This compendium was inspired by a brief lecture on the painting by an eighth-grade student at Saint David's, a private elementary school for boys of all faiths in New York City. (Corrections, and suggestions for additions are most welcome.) - Louis Torres

Washington Crossing the Delaware [enlarged image: click on details to zoom in], 1851, Emanuel Leutze (German American, 1816-1868). Oil on canvas, 149 in. x 255 in. [12.4167 ft. x 21.25 ft.] (378.5 cm × 647.7 cm). Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gallery 760. Collection (smaller version* [more], approx. 3 ft. x 6 ft.), Minnesota Marine Art Museum, Winona, Minn.

* Best viewed in Firefox, which centers images on a dark background.

On the Painting and Related Information

* Washington's Crossing [click on "Look inside," then search for "Was it like the painting?" (in quotes) to read the first few pages of the book's Introduction], by David Hackett Fischer (Oxford University Press, 2004).

By far the most insightful account of the painting's intent and historic significance.

* "Washington Crossing the Delaware" (the painting) and George Washington's crossing of the Delaware River (the event that inspired it), Wikipedia.

As with any article in this online encyclopedia written by anonymous authors, these should not be relied upon as the primary or only source of information on the subject in question.

* "'Washington Crossing the Delaware' Lands in Winona Museum," Mary Abbe, Minneapolis StarTribune, March 24, 2015.

On the move of Leutze's smaller (third and final) version of the painting from the White House to its present home in the Minnesota Marine Art Museum.

* "Emanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware," Bryan Zygmont, Smarthistory, August 9, 2015. An authoritative brief essay that concludes:

It is clear . . . that Washington Crossing the Delaware's strength is not in the [literally] correct rendering of an historical event. Leutze's primary goal was to create a work of art that deliberately glorified General Washington, [as well as] the Colonial-American cause, and commemorated a military action of particular significance.

* "Crossing the Delaware, More Accurately," Corey Kilgannon, New York Times, December 23, 2011. About a recent depiction entitled Washington's Crossing: McKonkey's Ferry, Dec. 26, 1776, by history painter Mort Künstler, which purports to be more historically correct than Leutze's version.

Künstler patronizingly declares: "I'm not knocking the original: it's got great impact and Leutze did a heck of a job. I give Leutze higher marks for a good painting than for historical accuracy, but why can't you have both?" In contrast, Elizabeth Kornhauser, a curator of American paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, aptly argues: "Leutze wanted to convey the idea of Washington's heroism and to mythologize him, and you're not going to do that necessarily by getting terribly hung up on factual information."

Inexplicably, Künstler's painting depicts Washington in a flatboat ferry instead of a Durham boat, as documented in authoritative sources (see, for example, Ron Chernow's biography of Washington, below).

* "The Crossing," Chapter 23 of Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow (The Penguin Press, 2010), considered by some to be the best one-volume biography of Washington. Chernow's book is meticulously researched and dramatically written (one amateur presidential biography buff who has read them all justly refers to the historian's "masterful storytelling skills").

As 2,400 men boarded the Durham boats to begin their 800-foot journey across the river, they were tightly wedged in: 40 standing men were sometimes squeezed into a single craft. The task of transporting skittish horses and eighteen field guns--nearly 400 tons of cumbersome artillery--on the Delaware ferries was a prodigious undertaking. (273-274)

* "10 Facts about Washington's Crossing of the Delaware River," Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union (the oldest national historic preservation organization in the country, founded in 1853).

Fact No. 4: "Much of Washington's force crossed the river in shallow draft Durham boats--strongly built cargo vessels, most between 40 and 60 feet in length, designed to move iron ore and bulk goods down the river to markets in and around Philadelphia. These stout craft with their high side walls were robust enough to survive the ice-choked Delaware. Heavy artillery pieces and horses were transported on large flat-bottomed ferries."

* "History of the Durham Boat," Durham Historical Society, Durham, Penn.

"Durham boats were 'confiscated' by George Washington and used to carry his army across the Delaware River."