Whether we realize it or not, many of our nation’s great paintings actually depict a tremendous amount of our history and culture. While some of these are not quite so blatant about this as others, knowing the history behind a piece of work helps to illuminate those elements of a painting that are intended to reflect the time in which the painting was made. In many cases, this type of historical search can also illuminate elements of a painting that were not intended to reflect the time in which it was painted but manages to do so regardless. Also, while some paintings are merely intended to be decorative or were commissioned for some other purpose, others are obviously intended to be commemorative, that is, they are intended to capture a moment in time that portrays an historical event of some kind. One such painting is George Washington Crossing the Delaware, painted in 1851 by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze. The obvious mismatch in dates between the creation of the painting and the actual crossing of the Delaware suggest that this was an event that was painted well after the fact – in fact, well after many of the recognizable men in the boat had been placed in their graves. Understanding a little about the history of the painting itself, along with the artist who painted it, helps to unravel some of the historical elements of the painting, both accurate and inaccurate.
Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze was a German-born painter who spent much of his life hopping back and forth across the Atlantic. He was born in Wurttemberg, Germany in the spring of 1816 and was brought to America as a small boy. It is known that he was in America in 1825 but that by 1841 he was on his way back to Germany again to take a course in art at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (Bowman, 1995). From his earliest works, one can begin to see his fascination with historical subjects as his first work, purchased by the Dusseldorf Art Union, was entitled Columbus before the Council of Salamanca. According to John Bowman’s (1995) essay on the painter, Leutze determined to paint the image of one of the more decisive moments of the Revolutionary War as a means of supporting the various revolutionary movements that were then taking place in Europe at the time of the painting. He already had several sketches of George Washington and some other figures from America and used art students and others as models for the remainder of the characters in the boat. Although the first rendition of the painting, created in 1850, was destroyed, Leutze repainted it in 1851 and it is this painting that is known and studied today. This chance to revisit the work gave Leutze the opportunity to focus on the ideas he wanted to convey in creating the painting while glossing over or completely changing historical fact.
Perhaps one of the most glaring errors in the painting is the time of day and climate. In the painting, George Washington and his men are depicted in the light of day with something approximating the full light of day just behind Washington’s head. This presents a halo effect around the leader that then filters down to illuminate the men around his feet who are staunchly pulling the boat through the waves and ice floes of the Delaware River. At their back are the heavy storm clouds of winter. Evidenced by the stripes of darkness angling down from the sky toward the ground at their rear, Leutze obviously intends to suggest a fierce storm raging behind the men in the boats while suggesting there are only clear skies ahead of them. This carries with it all the allegorical meanings of the fierce battles of the Revolution being behind the new nation and only the clear skies and bright future ahead of them as they stepped off under the leadership of their great and humble general. There does seem to be a wind blowing as both the flag and the scarves of the men in the boats are blowing backward, but this breeze does not seem to be overly strong as the hats of the men remain firmly in place with no one reaching to grab hold of them and the waves of the river are relatively calm.
The historical event depicted in the painting took place on December 26, 1776. This is a time of year when the Delaware River habitually enters the process of freezing over and would have contained large chunks of ice within its waters. There is no sense in the painting of the desperation many of these men must have felt, having seen the Continental Army dwindle from a force of nearly 30,000 men to just over 3,000, many of which were due to return to their homes following the end of the conscriptions at the end of the month (Hansen, 2003). However, it is likely that this element of the scene would not have been overly visible at any rate as the men crossing in the boats did so in the middle of the night during a howling blizzard. “The weather was horrendous and the river treacherous. Raging winds combined with snow, sleet and rain to produce almost impossible conditions. To add to the difficulties, a significant number of Washington’s force marched through the snow without shoes” (Washington, 2004). A first-hand account of the crossing, and recrossing of the river the following day with their Hessian prisoners, indicates that the ice in the river caused a great deal more difficulty than the single man stamping at ice in the picture would suggest: “the ice continually stuck to the boats, driving them down stream; the boatmen endeavoring to clear off the ice pounded the boat, and stamping with their feet” (Elisha Bostwick cited in Commager and Morris, 1968). There is no indication within the painting of these ‘horrendous’ conditions. As has been mentioned, the only evidence of storm occurs behind the men while the only evidence of wind suggests a brisk breeze at best.
Other inconsistencies exist between the painting and reality as well, particularly in terms of historical presence. The first of these can be found in the depiction of the American flag, which features the ‘Betsy Ross’ circle of stars in the field of blue. While this is barely perceptible within the image, it is nevertheless clear that this is the flag used for the painting. This representation is often cited as a historical misconception because of the fact that the flag with the circle of stars was not actually adopted as the flag of the United States until June 14, 1777 (Betsy Ross, 1995). However, until this point in time, the various colonies used a variety of flags to gather under representing a number of different sentiments and ideas, including one that looked very much like the Union Jack of Britain. This means that George Washington could have elected to lead his men using one of a number of flags intended to represent the several colonies. As it was George Washington himself who commissioned the flag with the 13 stars in the spring of 1776, it is not inconceivable to assume he might have had this flag with him upon crossing the Delaware. “According to Betsy Ross’s dates and sequence of events, in May the Congressional Committee called upon her at her shop. She finished the flag either in late May or early June 1776” (Betsy Ross, 1995). George Washington was a part of this Congressional Committee and was also a regular patron of Mrs. Ross’, frequently having his shirts and cuffs embroidered by her. Thus, this element of the painting may or may not be historically accurate; it is difficult to say for sure.
Other historical presences are more easily ascertained. The only other two recognizable figures in the boat with Washington are James Monroe, who would become one of the new nation’s presidents in later days, and Prince Whipple, a black man who had been sent by his parents to America for an education and was instead sold into slavery. Reports indicate that James Monroe was quartered in the same house with Washington when the decision was made to cross the Delaware, but no evidence that he was actually in the same boat with the General during the crossing (Washington, 2005). Prince Whipple is nearly as traceable as Monroe as a minor legend of the Revolution. He earned his emancipation from slavery by fighting in the war and died in Portsmouth at the age of 32 leaving behind a wife and children, but is also easily located in Baltimore on the day of the crossing, making it impossible that he was present in the boats crossing the Delaware from Pennsylvania to New Jersey with Washington (Washington, 2005). What is factual about his presence in George Washington’s boat is that a number of black men did fight for America’s freedom alongside the white men and willingly gave their lives in hopes of securing a more hopeful future for their children and grandchildren.
There are a number of other elements within the painting that can be discussed that help to illuminate the ideas Leutze had in mind when he painted it, however the elements of historical figures and basic depiction discussed above serve to highlight the primary differences between point of fact and flights of fancy. In each case, it can be seen that Leutze did not change history maliciously or without reason, but instead had reasonable goals in mind for doing so. While he toned down the treachery and misery of the patriots as they crossed the river that night by placing them in daylight and with clearing skies ahead, these changes were intended to give hope to those who would follow in these men’s footsteps without overly discouraging them regarding the odds. While the other recognizable figures in the boat with Washington may not have been present at all, they did figure largely in Revolutionary history and remained representative of the types of men who would fight for the country’s freedom. In making these changes, Leutze managed to do exactly what he’d set out to do – create an inspiring image of an heroic figure during a pivotal moment in his life and the life of a nation.
- “Betsy Ross and the American Flag.” US History. Philadelphia, PA: Independence Hall Association, 1995.
- Bowman, John S. The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
- Commager, Henry Steele & Morris, Richard B. The Spirit of Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1968.
- Hansen, Liane. “Washington’s Crossing of the Delaware: Against the Elements and Odds, a Revolutionary Turning Point.” NPR. December 28, 2003.
- Leutze, Emmanual Gottlieb. “George Washington Crosses the Delaware.” [oil on canvas]. 1851.
- “Washington Crosses the Delaware, 1776.” EyeWitness to History. (2004). April 19, 2008 from
- “Washington Crosses the Delaware.” American Revolution. Riverside, CA. (2005). April 19, 2008 from < http://www.americanrevolution.org/contact.html>