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Why Washington Stood Up In The Boat

July 2024
5min read

A memoir by a fellow artist who watched the genesis of a favorite American historical painting clarifies

America got its first look at Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware in New York City in 1851, the year it was completed. A huge canvas it was—21 feet 4 inches by 12 feet 5 inches—and the most ambitious of Leut/e’s whole career. Its exhibition in late October at the Stuyvesant Institute on Broadway drew, in less than two weeks, five thousand viewers. The Evening Mirror pronounced the picture “the grandest, most majestic, and most effective painting ever exhibited in America.” In less than a month, orders were being solicited for the first of many reproductions; and shortly Washington Crossing the Delaware was a fixture in every schoolroom, a “must” illustration in history texts, and a favorite engraving across the continent.

Although the rapturous admiration of the American people for Leutze’s elaborate historical tableau has been tempered by a century of changing artistic taste and judgment, the big canvas has steadfastly remained one of the two or three most popular American paintings. In 1931, with the approach of the bicentennial of Washington’s birth, the public made the shocking discovery that Leutze’s work had been rolled up and put away in the basement of New York’s Metropolitan Museum, whose directors in that era were not much impressed with it as art. An indignant outcry ensued, and by February 22, 1932, the beloved picture was back on display. Today, on indefinite loan from the Metropolitan, it is still viewed by 100,000 pilgrims a year at Washington Crossing State Park, Pennsylvania, where a handsome auditorium lias been built to house this single canvas.

In its century of popularity, the painting has withstood many a skirmish with art critics, historians, and sundry other demurrers and debunkers. The public has often been told that it is neither art nor iiistory. Innumerable historical errors have been charged against Leutzc: he depicted the crossing in daylight when actually it was made in the dark; he showed an American (lag that in 1776 had not yet keen adopted: he cleared tip the snow and exaggerated the ice: he portrayed Washington standing when the General, no fool about boats, would have known better—and so on and on. Such cavils, of course, make no allowance for the artist’s license to forgo historical precision in favor of heightening the dramatic and symbolic effect of his picture. The fascination of Washington Crossing the Delaware has owed much to Leutze’s deliberate combination of realistic visual detail with a lofty disregard for probabilities. What mattered to him was the spirit of the historical event, not the letter—the kind of thing that evoked from a contemporary critic an ecstatic reference to his portrayal of “the countenance of Washington, who carries the American Revolution in his heart.”

Near the end of World War I, the painting excited misguided attacks directed toward the artist’s German background. Leutze, according to one newspaper story, was ignorant of American history and tradition, and had used his fellow Germans as models. What the picture really showed—and this was an inflammatory charge in 1918—was German soldiers, disguised as Americans, crossing not the Delaware but the Rhine.

The truth is that Leutze considered himself an American, and had very good reason to do so. Although he was born in Germany in 1816, he came to the United States at the age of nine. He grew up in Philadelphia, and by 1841, not yet twenty-five, he was a successful and well-known American artist. In that year he went to Düsseldorf, Germany, to join the large artists’ colony that had been drawn there by the quaintness of the old Rhenish town and the rigorous program of its famed Academy.

As an accomplished painter of historical scenes, the tall, redheaded, ebullient young Leutze soon became a prominent member of the Düsseldorf group. He lived and worked in Germany and Italy for the next four years, and in 1845 married a beautiful German girl of nineteen. Soon his plans to return to the United States were delayed by the arrival of a baby daughter: two other children followed within the next three years. By 1849, Leutze appeared to have become a fixture in Düsseldorf, and visiting American artists regarded him as their master.

One of Leutze’s American protégés was an Ohio farm boy named Worthington Whittredge, who was to become a highly respected painter of the Hudson River school. In 1849 he sailed to Europe to study. Leutze, he said, was the “magnet” that drew him to Düsseldorf. When Whittredge arrived, Leutze was just beginning to paint Washigton Crossing the Delaware .∗ Some years later, Whittredge related his personal involvement with the painting. Quoted below—through the courtesy of William E. Katzcnbach of New York City, and the Archives of American Art. Detroit, the present owner—his memoir provides a fresh insight into the artist’s earnestness and intention. It also thoroughly clears Leutze of any charges of “un-Americanism.”

∗ Leutze actually painted the picture twice. The first canvas, not quite completed, was damaged in a fire in 1850, was restored, and eventually was destroyed in an Allied air raid during World War II. The second was the one sent to New York in 1851.

“I suppose there is no artist now living who is so familiar with the ‘getting together’ of [Leutze’s] great picture of ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’ as I am. I had not been in D’fcsseldorf an hour before he showed me a pencil sketch about six by ten inches which he made the night before of this subject. This little sketch if in existence is substantially the same in all its arrangement as the completed picture. The large picture is some twelve by twenty feet. A large canvas for it had been ordered that day. When it came he set to work immediately drawing in the boat and figures with charcoal without a model. All the figures were carefully corrected from models when he came to paint them. But he found great difficulty in finding American types for the heads and, in fact, models for the figures, all the German models being either too small or too closely set in their limbs for his purpose.

“He caught every American that came along and pressed him into his service. Mr. John Groesbeck of Cincinnati, a man six feet and over, called to see me and was taken for one of the figures almost before he had time to ask me how I was getting along. My own arrival and that of my friend were a godsend to him. My friend was a thin, sickly looking man, in fact all his life a half invalid; was seized, a bandage put around his head, a poor wounded fellow but in the boat with the rest—while I was seized and made to do service 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 the Washington to be painted at a single sitting, so that the folds might be caught as they were first arranged. Clad in Washington’s full uniform [an exact duplicate] … spy glass in one hand and the other on my knee, I stood and was nearly dead when the operation was over. They poured champagne down my throat and I lived through it. …

“The head of Washington in this picture was painted from Houdon’s bust, a profile being represented. It is a very dignified figure, looking intently but calmly through the cold mist to the opposite shore vaguely visible over fields of broken ice.

“One figure in the boat only was painted from any but an American and he was a lall Norwegian, acquainted with ice and accustomed to a boat and could be admitted. A large portion of the great canvas is occupied by the sky. Leutze mixed the colors for it over night and invited Andreas Achenbach and myself to help him cover the canvas the next day, it being necessary, to blend the colors easily, to cover it all over in one day. It was done. Achenbach thought of the star, and painted it, one lone, almost invisible star, the last to fade in the morning light.”

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