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Washington Crossing the Delaware

Associate Director for Collections and Administration Carrie Barratt tells the story of one of the greatest icons of American painting, Emanuel Leutze's monumental Washington Crossing the Delaware.

Carrie Barratt: Hi, I'm Carrie Barratt, Associate Director for Collections and Administration at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I want to tell you a little bit about one of my favorite paintings at the Met and one that has to be among the top ten tourist attractions in the Museum, if not in the city. The painting I'm talking about is, of course, Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, painted in 1851 in Düsseldorf, Germany. And I'd like to tell you about the painting in really three aspects: first, the historical background of the event shown, itself, which is a fascinating and crucial event in American history; then about Leutze himself and how this picture came to be painted in Germany; and then a little bit about the painting itself, because a lot of people forget when looking at this monumental, glorious scene that it is actually a painting, that it was made by an artist for money and for fame, and at a time when Washington's own legacy was newly enhanced.

The scene that's shown is obvious—it's Washington crossing the Delaware in a boat with a great number of his troops. The actual number was 2,500—2,500 men crossed the Delaware with Washington as their leading commander on Christmas night, December 25, 1776.

They crossed the Delaware River—Washington's battalion—about nine miles above Trenton, New Jersey, and this is between the Pennsylvania and New Jersey border, on Christmas night, during a Nor'easter, one of the most violent storms that hits the Northeast coast. If maybe some of our listeners have actually been through such a thing, it might surprise viewers of the painting to see such incredible ice, but because the Delaware River ran south, there was ice—big huge ice chunks that flowed.

The troops were at this point absolutely demoralized, debilitated by winter. You can only imagine how cold it was on that night. And it was sort of a last gasp in Washington's command, to revitalize the creation of the United States, the war that was about to be lost after a series of humiliating and tremendous defeats by the British over the Americans. This crossing of the Delaware was an absolute act of desperation.

They crossed during the night—a surprise attack—so that they could reach the Hessians in their village camping on Christmas, the day after, and surprise attack. They withstood—the British counter-attacked after this—marched to Princeton, and defeated the Brits there a year later. This crossing, this strategic crossing of the Delaware saved the Revolution and in effect quashed the triumph of the old order, quashed the Brits.

The way that Leutze depicts Washington is key to the hierarchy, let's say—he stands in the boat, which a lot of people think is sort of awkward but might have been true. These were flat-bottom boats and some of the men, in order to fit in the boats, did have to stand. Washington led a single battalion of officers across the Delaware with horses—you can see in the background of the painting, in separate boats. They had to be a different kind of carrier to go across the water. And Henry Knox was in a separate boat, the chief of artillery, and if you look at the painting hard enough, you can almost hear his big, loud voice booming across the river the night that they crossed.

Another interesting fact as you look at the painting is to think of the equipment, the clothing supply that George Washington's sort of rag-tag militia would have had as provisions that fall and winter. Each man was given two linen shirts, two overalls, a leather or woolen waistcoat—that's a vest with sleeves—breeches, one hat, two pairs of socks, and two pairs of shoes. By winter, most of the shoes had been destroyed. Some of the men in these boats had no shoes at all, making this very, very cold, strategic enterprise all the more amazing. The episode went down in history immediately as pivotal to George Washington's command of the troops, his abilities as a leader, and his abilities to rouse up the troops at a time when most of them were waiting for their commissions to expire so they could go home. And after all, it was Christmas, which is something that is hard to forget, and they're doing this at a time when all would have much rather been home.

And these were volunteer militia—important to remember that these were not enlisted men as we know of today. These were volunteers that chose to fight for their country, and they had no idea what they were getting into at the time.

Leutze recalls this battle in the 1850s, about seventy-five years after the fact. The painting you are looking at and hearing about was painted in 1851 in Düsseldorf. Leutze was German, spent some of his childhood in Philadelphia, and went back to Germany, where he was trained as an academic painter. This accounts for the level of finish, the accuracy in the portrayal, and the overall extraordinary narrative style.

The late 1840s and '50s were a time of really international revolutions. And especially in Germany, the revolutions of 1848—when the German government went under an upheaval—was a time at which, in a general sense, a lot of world populations were looking for strong leadership. This was precisely the time in American history when George Washington, who had been dead for fifty years—Washington died in 1799—rose to prominence, not only as a memory at being a great president and the commander of our forces during the American Revolution, but as a leader among leaders, a man among men, the kind of mythologized leader that almost any country in the world would have been happy to have. We take this with a grain of salt, of course. It's a mythologized vision of a leader, but Washington was truly a great man. And this was also the time when the Mount Vernon Ladies Association is invented in order to preserve Washington's legacy at Mount Vernon. It's the time when people actually became so interested in Washington that they would have visited his home as a shrine, his property. They wanted to see his things, as if you would visit the relics of a saint or another sort of religious personage.

It's interesting to think, since we really haven't had a president like that since. Many, many famous presidents, and those with great legacies, but Washington was really an international hero at the time for having led this great battle. And again, the crossing of the Delaware becomes the paramount event in that legacy.

The painting, as I mentioned earlier, was executed in Germany, in Leutze's Düsseldorf studio. The figure of Washington—of course, Washington was gone by then, and Washington never went to Germany, Washington barely got out of the Northeast coast. He went to Barbados; it's the only place Washington ever went. He never went to Germany. He used studio mates and friends to pose for Washington and the men in the boat. You may see a tinge of sort of German heritage in some of the faces on the men. That's no surprise, as most of the models for the various people in the boat would have been Leutze's German friends at the time.

The actual model for Washington himself was the American painter Worthington Whittredge, a great landscape painter whose works you can see in other galleries here at the Met. He used, for Washington's head, the life mask that was cast by Jean-Antoine Houdon at the end of the eighteenth century, the most accurate depiction of Washington, as it was an actual cast of his face. And Leutze got the uniform from the Smithsonian. George Washington's military uniform had been donated to the Smithsonian Institution. So for the figure of Washington, he had a lot of good, very detailed information to go on. He chose to portray the American flag – although we love to point out the inaccuracies, giving Leutze the benefit of the doubt, he tried as hard as he could to make this as accurate as possible. The flag that he used was not adopted until many years later. This is not the American flag that was used in 1776. The boats are slightly inaccurate, it may or may not have been the actual formation of ice that had formed. And some of the artillery, the bringing of the artillery across, is misinformation. But by and large, Leutze got it right. Leutze got the scene right. And there are recent books on this subject, which show just how accurate he was in the portrayal.

Leutze's object was not only to honor the memory of Washington, but probably more so—he's an artist, after all—to make money, gain fame, and to make a presence of himself in America.

He sent this picture to New York in 1851, and its arrival was anticipated in the local papers, in various journals, so that by the time it came, there was great fanfare. It was probably unrolled—as a picture this big would have been very difficult to ship from Germany to New York—and it did gather lots and lots of attention in New York in February of 1851.

At that exhibition it sold to a man named Marshall Roberts, an art collector and New Yorker, for we think the sum of about $10,000. Marshall Roberts later, when he died, the picture was bought by John Stewart Kennedy, the founder of Kennedy Galleries here in New York, and it was given to the Metropolitan Museum in 1897. This is of interest, I suppose, to some, who will find it fascinating that the picture only had one owner. That owner, Marshall Roberts, agreed that the picture could go on display in Washington, D.C., where it was shown in 1852 to just as great acclaim as it had received in New York about a year earlier than that.

At the Metropolitan Museum, the painting has always held a place of honor. We have archival photographs that show it front and center, always prominently displayed, sometimes with European paintings, with American paintings. It has never been off view at the Metropolitan, except for a period of years around the 1960s and '70s, when the picture was lent to none other than Washington's Crossing, New Jersey, the actual site of the crossing of the Delaware, where there is a museum, sent there then because of the renovation of The American Wing.

From 1980 to 2009, it hung in the same place in the galleries—until a renovation of the wing was undertaken again recently. The painting is back on view as of January 2012 in the New American Wing Galleries for Paintings, Sculpture, and Decorative Arts. The painting has been treated to a cleaning, which now shows the morning star and vibrant colors, and has a new frame that replicates Leutze's original. The frame was recorded in a Mathew Brady photograph taken during the 1864 Sanitary Fair, and we've done our best, with the help of Eli Wilner & Company, to replicate precisely Leutze's intention for the presentation of this great painting.

Washington Crossing the Delaware represents for us a number of things, as now you've heard me mention: the great moment in American history that we are happy to commemorate; the fervor for Washington at mid-century; but more importantly, and a piece that lots of people might tend to miss, it's an exquisite painting, an extraordinary example of mid-nineteenth-century academic painting, by an American, an artist who lived in America, sought training in Germany, and sent back the best that he could to represent American art at its highest levels.

Leutze was not the first nor was he the last American artist to seek training abroad and send their work back home to show that American artists could compete on an international scale. The picture itself, while evoking an extraordinarily, one would say, patriotic and nationalistic American event, participates in its composition and its method of execution in the best European academic painting of its day.

I hope that in listening to this very short riff on Washington Crossing the Delaware that you've gained something about its history, about its execution, and about its place in the Metropolitan Museum, and that the next time you see it you will enjoy it more than ever. Thank you very much.

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