American Art Daily

featuring George Washington Crossing the Delaware

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Happening Truth by Mallory Kappel

In reality, the scene of George Washington crossing the Delaware River was not nearly as glorious as it is portrayed in the painting. After the British forces had taken control over both Boston and New York, Americans were concerned about the wellbeing of their cause. Great Britain had gained lots of power against the colonists by then, so George Washington took a dangerous risk against a highly skilled British military to restore this struggling American cause. In the middle of Christmas night in 1776, Washington and his troops set out to cross the freezing Delaware River. Washington specifically chose Christmas because the German Hessians whose camp they would be invading, got very drunk on holidays such as this, making them an even easier target for the colonists. This was a much harder task than what appears in the painting, because not only was the river filled with ice, but it was completely dark as well. They did, however, make it across the river, and the makeshift Continental army, consisting of 2,000 Americans, charged into Trenton and surprised the Hessians that were camped there. The Americans took 900 plus Hessians as prisoner, and found lots food and ammunition. Next, the Americans confidently marched to Princetown, where a few days later they were victorious against the British. These victories gave the Americans a strong sense of pride and motivation to earn independence. This feeling of pride and American Exceptionalism is shown in Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s painting, George Washington Crossing the Delaware.

Identity of the Author by Elizabeth Ho

Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze is a German American history painter born in 1816. He is best known for his painting of George Washington Crossing the Delaware. Born in Germany and raised in Virginia and then Philadelphia Leutze would draw at the bedside of his sick father to pass time. His pieces were sold for $5 supporting him after the death of his father until he received formal training by John Rubens Smith, a portrait painter. Leutze planned to be published in Washington, but due to lack of enthusiasm he was not published.

In 1840, one of his paintings finally got him attention that lead to orders allowing him to go to Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, a German art school, where he studied under Lessing, a historical and landscape painter. Continuing to travel in Europe he studied and painted winning a gold medal at the Brussels Art Exhibition for Columbus in Chains which was the basis for the Columbus $2 stamp. After which he returned to Düsseldorf and got married staying for 14 years. During that time he helped visiting Americans and was involved in art associations. Still in Germany at the time of George Washington Crossing the Delaware, Leutze painted it as a symbol of the American Revolution to encourage European Revolutions enlisting the help of American tourists and art students as models.

Returning to the United States in 1859, Leutze was in both New York City and Washington D.C. with a studio in New York City. He painted many portraits of distinguished people. Leutze even decorated a stairway in the Capitol Building painting Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way. Leutze died painting The Emancipation of the Slaves. Leutze was known for his artistic ability, but his patriotism.

Critique of the Painting by Mindy Dai

George Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze is an epic depiction of a historical event during the American Revolution, in which Washington is making a surprise attack on the Hessian forces in New Jersey.

The focus of the painting is clearly centered on the man himself, George Washington. The light from the sky shines directly against Washington’s silhouette, giving him a halo, which reminds the viewer of a nimbus that used to surround heavenly or divine figures in Classical paintings. In this way, Washington is elevated beyond the mortal coil and status of ordinary men, to a God like standing. The political motivation behind this artistic liberty is clear; Leutze clearly wanted to glorify Washington as almost an American god, a god of freedom if you will. Washington is also depicted as staring forward in the painting, looking at something in the distance that no one else can quite see. Almost everyone else in the ship is looking downward at the water or kind of glancing forward but not with the same intensity as Washington. This also emphasizes Washington’s depiction as a visionary arguing that he alone had the foresight and wisdom to guide the Continental army.

Beyond George Washington, we also see a scene of great suffering and great resilience. The people in the boat are obviously struggling to navigate the icy waters of the Delaware and waves lap at their small boats, threatening their lives if they fall. The coldness of the scene is emphasized by soldiers huddled in their clothing. Yet they persist onwards, beating back at the waves, to propel the boat across. Their expressions are stoic and unafraid at what may come, focused intensely on the task at hand. George Washington and a man beside him clearly stand upward on the tiny boat; their postures are straight despite the perilous scene they are in, which shows their strength and fearlessness. The man beside George Washington carries the American flag aloft, which waves in an unseen wind. The flag seems unaffected as a symbol of hope despite everything else that is happening. The dangers of the water further emphasize the bravery and courage of the men in the boats to create an overall, very uplifting scene.

But the context of the painting reveals more than anything about the audience, exigency, and purpose. Leutze was a German who spent time in America only to return back to Europe as an adult. Ironically enough, despite the American subject matter, this was intended to be a painting for European eyes. Leutze was motivated to paint George Washington Crossing the Delaware in order to inspire European liberal fervor after the Revolutions of 1848 in Europe, a series of revolutions that encouraged the overturning of ancient feudal systems and an “uprising of the people.” Leutze saw the parallels between this great uprising in Europe and the uprising that occurred in American nearly eighty years before. The grandeur of the painting, the story of a successful uprising was meant to encourage the Europeans to continue to revolt by showing them how glorified they will be if they succeed. Leutze argues with his painting that George Washington was a figure to be admired as a symbol of revolution against tyranny.

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Story Truth of Washington Crossing the Delaware by Grace Watkins

I shouldn’t be afraid. I know I shouldn’t be afraid. For some of the other soldiers, Washington alone is enough to convince them that we cannot lose. Foolish. But I wish I could be so foolish. Washington stands mere feet from me, but I can’t a find a scrap of the idiotic bravery that pulled me into the ranks of the army. For some of them, the sight of the flag, the strange snapping sound it makes in the freezing air, for some of them, that is enough to make them sure that God is on our side.

And God is on our side. I knew that not so long ago, when I was begging my parents to let me fight, and they were screaming at me, screaming that I was too young to fight, to die. I am too young, barely sixteen, and yet I feel so old. I feel like I have seen centuries pass since I left my family. I hope my little sister—her birthday was last month, she’d be seven now—I hope that she won’t cry for me if I die. No. I’m not going to die. God is on our side. I know that. Even if this freezing river feels beyond the reach of any God.

Freezing. The wind is scrapes at my skin, but the sting is better than my fingers and toes where I can’t feel anything at all. I wish the cold would dull the fear. But fear is cold. It’s a coldness so deep in me that I can’t tell where I, woven with terror, end, and the winter begins. My arms ache from rowing. I wish the pain wouldn’t distract me, but it doesn’t.

I shouldn’t be afraid. It’s a surprise attack, on Christmas. The Hessians will certainly be tired, their senses dulled by the aftermath of celebration, their strength sapped by the harshness of the weather. “They’ll never see it coming.” the others say. “Washington is brilliant.” the others say. “Freedom will be ours.” the others say. But all I can think is that the Hessians are a thousand times stronger than us. All I can think is about the cold world, the cold fear, how much death will hurt and how red my blood will look in the snow. I hope my little sister stays loud and happy when I die. I hope she grows up and falls in love and never has to see too much of war.

I’m not going to die. I shouldn’t be afraid. We’re going to win. Washington is brilliant. It’s a surprise attack God is on our side. We’re going to win. I shouldn’t be afraid.

But I am.

War Story

Washington did not feel particularly brave the night he was crossing the Delaware River. Mostly tired- he felt tired; could a hero feel tired? He tried to keep his back straight, his eyes up, but he felt his limbs being pulled down by the endless waves, like he was the edge of drowning, almost perpetually.

He looked onwards and thought about a great number of things, domestic things mixed in with the destruction of war things. Domestic things like how Martha sang as she baked in her clear soprano, how the cinnamon and apple pie melted on his tongue, the last time he ate it. That time felt like decades ago. It’s a bit funny the things you remember at the end of everything else.

He thought about war. War, which was quite unavoidable when you are literally in a warzone. He thought about how the body could contort after death, the myriad ways limbs could be rearranged after they’ve detached. He thought about the different sounds of death; a cacophony of last cries, cutting screams the boom of the cannon.

He thought about that young boy with the golden flax haired that smiled him one moment and lost his head in the next. He would never smile again, except for perhaps God.

It’s not really the dying that kills Washington the most; it’s the way they die, if only perhaps they didn’t die so loudly- or so quietly.

He blinks: he’s back.

His men are straining at the oars, they’re tired. Perhaps just as tired as him; they’re also so young. Mere babes in the cradle compared to his wizened years- Washington is tired but he isn’t scared.

I think I’m old enough to die.