It’s a rare piece of art that is as relevant on the Fourth of July as it is on Christmas, but Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 work pulls it off. It’s just one of the many little tensions lurking below the surface of this iconic piece of American art.
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 760, Leutze’s oil painting is 21 feet, three inches long and 12 feet, five inches tall. Its size is somehow surpassed by its cultural shadow. The painting of George Washington leading 2,500 troops across the Delaware River to fight Hessian troops at Trenton was first displayed in New York in 1851. More than 50,000 people paid to see this mythical-sounding moment of the Revolutionary War play out on an equally epic canvas.
It’s one of those images that is so ubiquitous that’s almost hard to see. But only a little bit of context reveals that this all-American painting wasn’t painted for an American audience.
To begin, the painting in The Met is the second version of the subject matter Leutze painted. The first had a run of terrible fortune and was burned, restored, and ultimately destroyed in an Allied bombing raid during World War II. A third, smaller version painted by Leutze is now in Minnesota.
Though the artist spent much of his childhood in Philadelphia, the German-born Leutze was back living in Germany when he painted Washington. In the bottom-right corner, you can see his signature along with “Dusseldorf, 1851.”
Its foreign origins are no knock against the case for this painting being an American classic–after all the Statue of Liberty was built by the French. It is a little funny to consider that Washington was on his way to attack Hessian–which is to say German–troops. Though he was enthralled by North American history, Leutze was trying to inspire those who wanted more liberal governments in Europe with images of the American revolution—freedom fighters overthrowing an oppressive royalist government. With his painting hanging in the American Wing, today, perhaps Leutze’s Atlantic-spanning lifetime can also serve as a reminder of the United States’s history as a country of immigrants.
That the painting was geographically removed from its subject also explains a frequently cited flaw in the painting: the Delaware River doesn’t really look like that. As New Yorkers bound for the Poconos can tell you, the Delaware River has lower, more sloping banks than those in the background of the painting. Instead, the painting was modeled after the Rhine River, which Leutze had easier access to. Though the Delaware isn’t known for mini-icebergs depicted in the painting, it still would have been no treat to cross during a nor’easter on Christmas. The river was ice-choked at the time, and two other groups of Continental troops could not join Washington’s attack on Trenton due to weather.
Without knowing how difficult it is to paint someone looking heroic in a snowstorm at night, it’s hard to say if Leutze’s changes to the weather and river size were making concessions of necessity or trying to imbue the endeavor with the heroism he saw fit, but the brightness of the Morning Star hints towards the latter.
One could speculate the same about the other big noteworthy break in historical accuracy: the American flag with stars and stripes is flying above George Washington’s head. The stars and stripes would not officially become our flag until June 1777, some six months later. One can forgive Leutze if he just thought that, without the flag, no one would recognize what’s going on.
Some 165 years later, the image has contributed immensely to how we picture that cold Christmas night, and how we as a nation see ourselves.