Text by Deanna MacDonald
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This iconic image of General George Washington leading revolutionary troops across the Delaware River has come to be thought of as a piece of early photojournalism; capturing the courage and fortitude of the Americans as they surprised English and Hessian troops in the Battle of Trenton on December 25, 1776. However many do not realise that the painting was actually executed 74 years after the fact in a studio in Düsseldorf by a 34-year-old German-American artist who wanted to encourage German liberals defeated in the revolutions of 1848 to continue the struggle.
It was a fantastic piece of myth making, using the long-finished American Revolution to inspire another in Europe. When a second copy was sent to America in 1851 it quickly became part of the American vision of the Revolution (the first version was damaged in a fire but was celebrated in Germany nevertheless; it remained in the Bremen Kunsthalle until 1942 when it was destroyed in a British bombing raid). In New York, 50,000 people came to see it; it traveled to Washington, where Congress wanted to buy it for the White House; however it was a New York collector who purchased it for the then-enormous sum of $10,000.
At more than 12 feet high and 21 feet long (378.5 x 647.7 cm) it is today the largest picture in the Metropolitan. To complete it, Leutze recruited American tourists and art students to serve as models and assistants; many posed in period costumes in his Düsseldorf studio for hours on end.
Born in Schwäbisch-Gmünd, Leutze had spent his childhood in Philadelphia, returning to Germany in 1841 to study in Düsseldorf, where he remained for almost 20 years, primarily producing Romantic-styled pictures about American history. He was a ‘history painter,’ a somewhat deceptive title, considering most history painters took great liberties with historical facts for the sake of composition or drama, as Leutze does here.
In reality, Washington and his men daringly crossed the Delaware at night; Leutze sets it at dawn with a single prophetic star gleaming in the stormy sky. The picture is a flurry of activity: the only element not in motion is General Washington – the calm center of the storm. He stands heroically, though quite implausibly, in the rocking boat gazing off towards the enemy and victory. Behind him another future president, James Monroe, holds an anachronistic American flag (it was not adopted until many months after the crossing). Around them cluster men of various origins including a Scot in a tartan bonnet, frontiersmen with fur caps, and an African said to represent Prince Whipple, a slave who was emancipated during the war and fought with Washington. The latter’s inclusion was significant as Leutze was a strong abolitionist and in 1851 America had yet to abolish slavery.
Leutze depicts the river dangerously peppered with large ice chunks, a setting inspired not so much by reality as by the Romantic winter imagery of artists like Caspar David Friedrich. Some of the soldiers look ill, others scared as the oarsmen struggle to work against the winds and current. Leutze makes the boat improbably small, a technique that heightens the sense of peril. The focus is not on triumph, but on struggle and leadership – without Washington’s iron resolution this would be a picture of chaos and inevitable defeat; a lesson Leutze no doubt considered relevant to the liberals of Germany. For in real life, in 1776, the Revolutionaries won that battle at Trenton and the rest, as they say, is history.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1852 Gustave Courbet: Young Women of the Village Giving Arms to a Cowherd, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
1851–3 Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres: Princesse de Broglie, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art