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A Majestic Undertaking

Emanuel Leutze (American, 1816–1868). Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of John Stewart Kennedy, 1897 (97.34)

Walk into the American Wing and step back in time to stand before the six-foot-three George Washington in Emanuel Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware. Leutze's painting captures the spirit of this daring undertaking by George Washington, and illustrates America's capacity to overcome adversity at great odds.

I was astounded to find out how much research the artist did before he painted this work. He wrote the US government and asked for a replica of Washington's uniform. He poured over the diaries, letters, and accounts of men that had participated in this military endeavor. He even read the weather reports for that day! Leutze used this information to shape his first sketches of this epic painting. However, he also used his artistic license to illustrate the spirit of freedom that accompanied this courageous feat.

In actuality, Washington crossed the Delaware River on a pitch-black night, pitted with freezing rain and snow, while a full moon shone above the darkened cloud cover and low, scudding clouds. Total darkness is not necessarily what a painter wants to capture. Instead, Leutze paints a rising dawn in the background, a metaphor for the dawning of a new republic. In reality, despair pervaded the hearts of many colonists before this military endeavor. Many believed the hopes and dreams of the American Revolution were close to being crushed.

It seems strange that George Washington stands in the middle of a little boat surrounded by his troops, in danger of being flung head over heels into the icy white caps of the Delaware River. General Washington was in fact standing when he crossed the Delaware, but so was everybody else; it's the boat that is all wrong in the painting. It is actually too small to support all of the people pictured. Leutze also paints Lieutenant James Monroe—future president of the United States—holding the American flag, the design of which had not yet been created.

Detail of Lieutenant James Monroe in Emanuel Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware

The point of Leutze's effort was to embody the patriotic fervor embraced in the cause of freedom, symbolizing the creation of a new nation. If it were not for these soldiers and others willing to risk their lives, their fortunes, and their all, this cause would have been abandoned. Instead of painting exact reality, he captured the spirit of American freedom. This freedom is born from the selfless sacrifice of all men, women, and children willing to lay down their lives to provide freedom for future generations.

Don't miss this painting. Seeing it in real life is all the more amazing. Below is my own interpretation of Washington Crossing the Delaware. My drawing is titled Another Way of Looking at It.

Garrett. Another Way of Looking at It, 2012

How does this painting make you feel?

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Department: The American Wing

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