|Washington Crossing the Delaware, Emanuel Leutze, 1851|
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain,
My American friends will have to excuse this Brit for writing about what is possibly the most famous of American paintings. Emanuel Leutze, 1816 – 1868, was a German-American ‘History Painter’; History painting was at the summit of the hierarchy of genres, meaning that it was considered the most important because, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, it required all of the skills that were needed for all other types of painting. This painting was completed in 1851, around the time that those hierarchies were starting to become less important. In keeping with the genre, it is of a monumental size, measuring more than 12ft by 21ft., (3.78 by 6.47m). He started to paint the picture in 1849 but it was damaged by a fire in his studio in 1850. It was restored only to be destroyed in Berlin in 1942 by a bombing raid. He did, however, make at least two copies and many other artists have copied and pastiched this painting.
I think it is a very beautiful picture which has been executed with great skill. There are various inaccuracies and ‘impossibilities’ of which it may seem petty of me to mention. However, it won’t stop me because they are all interesting points. Firstly, the man standing on Washington’s right (who is James Munroe, a future President), is holding the Stars and Stripes flag which did not exist as such until well after this depiction – on the dawning of 26th December 1776. The Delaware is much narrower than depicted here at that crossing point and when it freezes over it tend to be in sheets, not chunks as depicted. The artist used images of the Rhine to create the river, where the ice does form chunks. Incidentally, Washington was leading a surprise attack on the Hessian troops based in Trenton, New Jersey, who were German mercenaries employed by the British; they formed fully 30% of British troops in the War of Independence!
The boats, shown carrying a selection of ‘types’, eg. a Scotsman, a Negro, a Frontiersman etc, are of the wrong kind with sides that are much too low. The light is all wrong, appearing to come from several different directions at once. Also, Washington, reasonably enough, is shown in an heroic pose but would not have been able to stand up like that. None of this matters much- it is a magnificent piece of work which creates real depth by the way in which the background boats are spread into the distance and one can almost reach out to touch the ice-chunks.
I'm listening to Carole King singing her own song, "I Wasn't Born to Follow" made famous by The Byrds but I love her version best!