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Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Painting of the Month (64) August 2016: Leutze

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.
E G Leutze
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!


Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Bazza - it's a huge piece of art ... then it's been through some life. It's fascinating to read the 'inaccuracies' - as it allows us to interpret the painting more thoroughly ... I'll be back - as I need to check the history ... and to read your post with the art work displayed. Thanks for this - cheers Hilary

bazza said...

Hello Hilary. You must be the most pro-active reader I have! Thanks for your interest - it keeps me on my toes.....

Dixie@dcrelief said...

>>..."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"

You are so right - how funny!

bazza said...

Thanks Dixie. No offence meant! It's good to hear from you.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Bazza - I know so little about the American Civil War ... but collect snippets which feed into my minimal knowledge base - and I love how so many liberties were taken when paintings were created (painted) ... and I guess the internet wasn't around for them to check up their historical facts!* It's 'frightening' how little history I know about the Americas ... but thanks for this and for introducing us to Leutze.

After writing the early part of this comment ... the 2nd para refutes to a point what I said above ...

I found that connection really interesting ... and the fact (apparently) that Leutze painted this work to inspire the Revolutions in Europe of 1848 ... the map-image showing 'the muddle' of European states is fascinating ... I'll have to be back at some stage to look into the history further. It always surprises me that Germany, as Germany, only came about in 1871 ...

History is extraordinary ... I'm reading Patrick Leigh Fermor's books ... about his walking to Istanbul from London down the Rhine and the Danube (in 1933) ... he is such a knowledgeable man ... that he makes the history attainable ... loving them.

Cheers - I think that's me done here for now ... Hilary

bazza said...

Thank you Hilary. I think any artist would claim that what their work has to be, first and foremost, is a work of art despite any 'purpose' behind it. It's same with 'the film of the book'; it's first duty is NOT to be faithful to the book but, instead to be a good film. (That's why so many people are disappointed if they read the book first!)
One might say that presenting facts that are not strictly true is the first step on the road to abstraction, where nothing concrete is being represented. Look for my upcoming Painting of the Month for September - Bridget Riley.

Sherry Ellis said...

I have always liked this painting. I enjoyed your commentary on it. Yes, it is a romanticized version of what really happened, but still a masterpiece!

Starting Over, Accepting Changes - Maybe said...

I have seen the picture and heard about some of these inaccuracies. It is beautiful and very inspiring, but like so much about politics, it fibs.

I thought of you last week when I took my two teenage granddaughters to The Brandywine River Museum in ChaddsFord . They are both aspiring artists and I wanted to introduce them to three of our famous painters/illustrators, NC, Andrew, and Jamie Wyeth. They liked the museum but we're even more interested in seeing their homes and studios. I think I remember you saying that you had been there and I was surprised that someone from across the sea had visited our little towns. I do think, though, that Chester County is a lovely place and has some nice places to tour ( Longwood a Gardens and some very nice vineyards).

klahanie said...

Hey bazza,

Okay, my fine chap, you wait for my eagerly anticipated comment is over! You have a variety of comments. Some from Brits and some from Americans. Must check to see if they have been spelling in correct English, as in English, English.

Okay, I strayed from the topic. I've always been fascinated by that painting. Inaccuracies galore but what the hell. Thanks for your insightful take on it, good sir.


Deborah Weber said...

I'd forgotten that Leutze's original had been destroyed. I've seen the painting in the Met and it is indeed impressive.

bazza said...

SHERRY: I like romanticised versions of history! We never learn the real truth anyway.

ARLEEN, Starting Over: You're right to recognise it as 'politics' and as a 'fib'. The winners (ie governments) write history. As Churchill once said "History will be kind to me, for I shall write it"!

GARY aka GAZZA/:It's always interesting how spellings differ on different sides of the Atlantic. Maybe it's time for another post on that subject (three so far!). Always good to hear from you.

DEBORAH: I've never seen it Deborah, but I think it would be hard to ignore at that massive size!