Created some 70 years after the moment it captured, Emanuel Leutze’s painting became the most iconic image of the American Revolution.
THOUGH IT HAS BEEN PARODIED, LAMPOONED, REENACTED, COPIED, AND CRITICIZED endlessly in recent times, for generations of Americans Washington Crossing the Delaware cemented the legacy of George Washington as the hero of the Revolution. And while the iconic painting’s details have almost no basis in fact, the crossing did signal a heroic and vital turning point in the history of the United States.
By the time Washington attempted his desperate river crossing on Christmas night 1776, his Continental Army had dwindled to 2,400 men, many of them barefoot and virtually starving. The great spirit of ’76 and the public hunger for independence had collapsed in the face of Washington’s persistent defeats. The Revolution was on the verge of becoming a mere footnote in the history of a world order dominated by empire. Yet against all odds—a fierce blizzard, an ice-choked river, tactics that went horribly awry—Washington and his men made it across the Delaware. Just after daybreak on December 26, they attacked the enemy’s Hessian garrison at Trenton, New Jersey, roaring their battle cry, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Washington’s orders to his officers had been clear: “Victory or Death.” He had known there were no other alternatives. And victory was theirs—a minor one militarily but enormous psychologically, reigniting hope and determination through the former colonies. The Revolution would go on.
Some 70 years later a German-born artist named Emanuel Leutze determined to capture that moment in the young nation’s struggle for independence. Leutze had immigrated to America with his family in 1825, when he was a boy of nine. The Leutzes settled in Philadelphia, an artistic hub of the early republic, and though very little is known about Leutze’s early life, he was said to have taken up portraiture at a young age and studied under John Rubens Smith, a London-born art instructor in Philadelphia. By his early 20s, he had become an artist with enough talent to attract patrons. With their help, he returned to Germany in 1841 to study at the Düsseldorf Academy. In 19th-century Europe, artistic tastes had been moving away from biblically and classically themed paintings and toward historically based images, and Düsseldorf was the acknowledged center for such work. Though Leutze soon fell out with the strictures of the academy, he gained a reputation for his epic depictions, particularly of Columbus. He developed a strong following in continental and American art circles. “Once having won a name in Europe as an artist,” he wrote in a letter to his sister, “I need have no fear in America.”
In 1848, as revolutions swept Europe, Leutze became deeply involved in the push for liberal reform, democracy, and unification of the German states. When such reforms failed, repression followed. Still, within the artistic community, Leutze continued to be a leader opposing Prussian despotism. Seeing parallels between the revolutionary zeal of his fellow Germans and that of Americans in the previous century, he set to work on a majestic depiction of the daring Delaware crossing in 1776. He chose the scene to emphasize revolutionary valor, particularly Washington’s, but he also believed such an image would have strong commercial appeal.
Leutze had attracted a following among aspiring American artists studying in Düsseldorf, and he frequently used them as models for the painting. As he explained to the American painter Worthington Whittredge, one of his models, he felt that Germans were either “too small or too closely set in their limbs.”
“My own arrival [at his studio] and that of my friend were a godsend to him,” Whittredge later wrote.
My friend was a thin, sickly-looking man, in fact all his life a half invalid; [he] was seized, a bandage put around his head, a poor wounded fellow put in the boat with the rest—while I was seized and made to serve twice, once for the steersman with the oar in my hand and again for Washington himself. I stood two hours without moving for the cloak of Washington to be painted at a single sitting, so that the folds might be caught as they were arranged. [I posed] spy glass in one hand and the other on my knee [and] was nearly dead when the operation was over. They poured champagne down my throat and I lived through it.
The uniform, according to Whittredge, was obtained by Eastman Johnson, a fellow American artist. Johnson’s father, a government employee in Washington, D.C., had had a local tailor copy the general’s tunic. Leutze modeled the head of Washington in his painting on the statue sculpted by Jean-Antoine Houdon, as he owned several casts taken from its face.
From his studio, Leutze could see the Rhine River, and he used its frozen surface as a guide for depicting the Delaware. The final result was a theatrical but striking rendition of soldiers crossing an ice-bound river. Washington stands erect at the bow of the small boat that dominates the center of the painting. Around him is an ensemble of men struggling to steer the vessel through the ice floes, while others, one with a bandaged head, huddle in the chill air. Behind the general, two men grasp a large, windswept flag; one of them is intended to represent Lieutenant James Monroe, the future president.
Leutze aimed to represent the ethnic and regional diversity of the American army in his depiction of Washington’s men. In the bow of the boat, a rowing figure wears a Scottish tam-o’-shanter; beside him, with one leg out of the boat to kick away the ice, the steersman sports a coonskin cap; completing the forward trio is an African-American soldier. Five men, including the bandaged figure, sit in the rear of the boat. The one in the stern, in a green tunic, moccasins, and a beaded bag, bears a resemblance to a Native American. Other boats in the makeshift continental flotilla occupy the right background, along with two men standing midriver on ice. The artist signed and dated the painting in red on a block of ice in the right foreground.
BY NOVEMBER 1850 LEUTZE HAD NEARLY FINISHED HIS PAINTING when his studio caught fire. The painting was badly damaged, but Leutze managed to repair it and also began work on a larger version of the image—a massive canvas 21 feet by 12 feet. The original painting that Leutze had repaired was exhibited throughout Europe until it was destroyed again and finally by fire in World War II, when an Allied bombing raid decimated the Bremen museum that had stored it in its basement. The second painting made its way to America and came to define the Revolution.
By April 1851 Leutze had made enough progress on the new painting that Adolphe Goupil of Goupil, Vibert & Co., a Paris art firm, traveled to Düsseldorf for the express purpose of buying it. He agreed to pay the equivalent of about $6,000 for the painting, which Leutze finished in July. In October the enormous framed canvas began its first American exhibition at the Stuyvesant Institute in New York City. More than 50,000 visitors paid an admission fee to gaze in awe at the epic image. Among them was a young Henry James. “We gaped responsive at every item, lost in the marvel of wintry light, of the sharpness of the ice-blocks, the sickness of the sick soldier,” he later recalled. James was experiencing the painting as the artist had intended, not as an exact depiction of a historical event but as a celebratory tribute to the essence of the American spirit. It glorified the heroics of this motley group of fighters and their commander, and, as Leutze had hoped, it struck a chord with the public. Leutze accompanied his painting as it was exhibited along the Eastern Seaboard, including in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Within weeks Goupil’s firm began taking advance orders for prints of a version of Leutze’s painting to be produced from a plate made by Paul Girardet, a Paris engraver and printmaker, and advertised as “the most beautiful and largest line engraving ever published.”
Returning to America in 1859, Leutze continued to paint portraits and grand historical images, including another epic subject, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, done as a mural for the Capitol during the first year of the Civil War. Leutze hoped to do more paintings in the Capitol, but no further commissions materialized, so he turned his attention to the war. He planned a series of portraits of leading Union generals, but by the time of his death in Washington in 1868 he had started only a handful of them.
Though Leutze painted a number of heroic scenes, including two showing Washington rallying troops at the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey, in June 1778, Washington Crossing remained his popular masterpiece. But as time progressed and tastes changed, it lost its standing. In 1931 it was discovered rolled up in the basement of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, an insignificant piece of art. In 1932 Washington Crossing was again put on display and remains so today.
Despite the painting’s enduring popular appeal, scholars over time have pointed out its various inaccuracies. They say Washington clearly could not have stood up in such conditions; the Americans crossed the river at night; the weather was incorrect, as was the boat; the river ice looked more like the floes on the Rhine; the flag would have been different, and so on. Toward the end of World War I, with anti-German sentiment running high, the charge was even made that Leutze had no idea about American history and that his painting actually showed German soldiers. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat described it in 1918 as “Washington crossing the Rhine.”
In fact, Leutze was apparently more at ease with American subjects and values than with those of the old German aristocracy. “To be purely human is not enough for them,” he wrote a friend in 1857. “They want only to be represented as heroes, as supermen.” For Leutze, Washington had qualified naturally for such status. But supermen are few and far between. MHQ
Peter Harrington is the curator of the Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection at Brown University.