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Washington Crossing the Delaware

Washington Crossing the Delaware

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Washington Crossing the Delaware is an 1851 oil-on-canvas painting
Painting is the practice of applying paint, pigment, color or other medium to a surface . The application of the medium is commonly applied to the base with a brush but other objects can be used. In art, the term painting describes both the act and the result of the action. However, painting is...

 by German American
German American
German Americans are citizens of the United States of German ancestry and comprise about 51 million people, or 17% of the U.S. population, the country's largest self-reported ancestral group...

 artist Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze. It commemorates General George Washington's crossing of the Delaware River on December 25, 1776, during the American Revolutionary War
American Revolutionary War
The American Revolutionary War , the American War of Independence, or simply the Revolutionary War, began as a war between the Kingdom of Great Britain and thirteen British colonies in North America, and ended in a global war between several European great powers.The war was the result of the...

. That action was the first move in a surprise attack against the Hessian forces at Trenton, New Jersey
Trenton, New Jersey
Trenton is the capital of the U.S. state of New Jersey and the county seat of Mercer County. As of the 2010 United States Census, Trenton had a population of 84,913...

 in the Battle of Trenton
Battle of Trenton
The Battle of Trenton took place on December 26, 1776, during the American Revolutionary War, after General George Washington's crossing of the Delaware River north of Trenton, New Jersey. The hazardous crossing in adverse weather made it possible for Washington to lead the main body of the...


The painting is part of the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is a renowned art museum in New York City. Its permanent collection contains more than two million works, divided into nineteen curatorial departments. The main building, located on the eastern edge of Central Park along Manhattan's Museum Mile, is one of the...

 in New York City
New York City
New York is the most populous city in the United States and the center of the New York Metropolitan Area, one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world. New York exerts a significant impact upon global commerce, finance, media, art, fashion, research, technology, education, and...

. There are many copies of the painting, one of which is in the West Wing
West Wing
The West Wing is the building housing the official offices of the President of the United States. It is the part of the White House Complex in which the Oval Office, the Cabinet Room, the Situation Room, and the Roosevelt Room are located...

 reception area of the White House
White House
The White House is the official residence and principal workplace of the president of the United States. Located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW in Washington, D.C., the house was designed by Irish-born James Hoban, and built between 1792 and 1800 of white-painted Aquia sandstone in the Neoclassical...



German-born Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze (1816-1868) grew up in America, then returned to Germany as an adult, where he conceived of the idea for this painting during the Revolutions of 1848
Revolutions of 1848
The European Revolutions of 1848, known in some countries as the Spring of Nations, Springtime of the Peoples or the Year of Revolution, were a series of political upheavals throughout Europe in 1848. It was the first Europe-wide collapse of traditional authority, but within a year reactionary...

. Hoping to encourage Europe's liberal reformers through the example of the American Revolution, and using American tourists and art students as models and assistants, Leutze finished the first painting in 1850. Just after it was completed, the first version was damaged by fire in his studio, subsequently restored, and acquired by the Kunsthalle Bremen
Kunsthalle Bremen
The Kunsthalle Bremen is an art museum in the Hanseatic City Bremen, Germany.The Kunsthalle was built in 1849 and enlarged in 1902 by architect Eduard Gildemeister....

. In 1942, during World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

, it was destroyed in a bombing raid by the British Royal Air Force
Royal Air Force
The Royal Air Force is the aerial warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Formed on 1 April 1918, it is the oldest independent air force in the world...

 (which has led to a persistent joke that the raid was Britain's final retaliation for the American Revolution).

The second painting, a full-sized replica of the first, was begun in 1850 and placed on exhibition in New York
New York
New York is a state in the Northeastern region of the United States. It is the nation's third most populous state. New York is bordered by New Jersey and Pennsylvania to the south, and by Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont to the east...

 in October 1851. More than 50,000 people viewed it. The painting was originally bought by Marshall O. Roberts for $10,000 (at the time, an enormous sum). After changing ownership several times, it was finally donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is a renowned art museum in New York City. Its permanent collection contains more than two million works, divided into nineteen curatorial departments. The main building, located on the eastern edge of Central Park along Manhattan's Museum Mile, is one of the...

 by John Stewart Kennedy
John Stewart Kennedy
John Stewart Kennedy was an American capitalist and philanthropist.-Biography:He was born near Glasgow in Scotland, received a scant education in school, studied in his spare moments as a clerk, and at 20 was sent to America by a London iron firm, in whose branch house in Glasgow he worked for...

 in 1897.

The painting was loaned at least twice in its history. In the early 1950s, it was part of an exhibition in Dallas, Texas
Dallas, Texas
Dallas is the third-largest city in Texas and the ninth-largest in the United States. The Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex is the largest metropolitan area in the South and fourth-largest metropolitan area in the United States...

. Then, beginning in 1952, it was exhibited for several years at the United Methodist Church in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania
Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania
Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania, is a small unincorporated village located in Upper Makefield Township, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with a zip code of 18977. Formerly known as "Taylorsville," it is most famous for Washington's crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas of 1776 during the...

, not far from the scene of the painting. Today, it is on exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In January 2003, the painting was defaced when a former Metropolitan Museum of Art guard glued a picture of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to it. No permanent damage was caused.


The painting is notable for its artistic composition
Composition (visual arts)
In the visual arts – in particular painting, graphic design, photography and sculpture – composition is the placement or arrangement of visual elements or ingredients in a work of art or a photograph, as distinct from the subject of a work...

. General Washington
George Washington
George Washington was the dominant military and political leader of the new United States of America from 1775 to 1799. He led the American victory over Great Britain in the American Revolutionary War as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army from 1775 to 1783, and presided over the writing of...

 is emphasized by an unnaturally bright sky, while his face catches the upcoming sun. The colors consist of mostly dark tones, as is to be expected at dawn, but there are red highlights repeated throughout the painting. Foreshortening, perspective
Perspective (graphical)
Perspective in the graphic arts, such as drawing, is an approximate representation, on a flat surface , of an image as it is seen by the eye...

 and the distant boats all lend depth to the painting and emphasize the boat carrying Washington.

The people in the boat represent a cross-section of the American colonies, including a man in a Scottish bonnet and a man of African descent facing backward next to each other in the front, western riflemen at the bow and stern, two farmers in broad-brimmed hats near the back (one with bandaged head), and an androgynous rower in a red shirt, possibly meant to be a woman in man's clothing. There is also a man at the back of the boat that looks to be Native American.

The man standing next to Washington and holding the flag is Lieutenant James Monroe
James Monroe
James Monroe was the fifth President of the United States . Monroe was the last president who was a Founding Father of the United States, and the last president from the Virginia dynasty and the Republican Generation...

, future President of the United States. Also, General Edward Hand
Edward Hand
-Early life and career:Hand was born in Clyduff, King's County, Ireland January 10, 1742, and was baptised in Shinrone. His father was John Hand. Among his immediate neighbours were the Kearney family, ancestors of U.S. President Barack Obamba [1]...

 (commanding general at Siege of Yorktown
Siege of Yorktown
The Siege of Yorktown, Battle of Yorktown, or Surrender of Yorktown in 1781 was a decisive victory by a combined assault of American forces led by General George Washington and French forces led by the Comte de Rochambeau over a British Army commanded by Lieutenant General Lord Cornwallis...

) is shown seated and holding his hat within the vessel.

Historical inaccuracies

The painting contains an often-discussed historical inaccuracy: the flag
A flag is a piece of fabric with a distinctive design that is usually rectangular and used as a symbol, as a signaling device, or decoration. The term flag is also used to refer to the graphic design employed by a flag, or to its depiction in another medium.The first flags were used to assist...

 borne in the painting is an anachronism
An anachronism—from the Greek ανά and χρόνος — is an inconsistency in some chronological arrangement, especially a chronological misplacing of persons, events, objects, or customs in regard to each other...


The flag depicted is the original flag of the United States
Flag of the United States
The national flag of the United States of America consists of thirteen equal horizontal stripes of red alternating with white, with a blue rectangle in the canton bearing fifty small, white, five-pointed stars arranged in nine offset horizontal rows of six stars alternating with rows...

 (the "Stars and Stripes"), the design of which did not exist at the time of Washington's crossing. The flag's design was specified in the June 14, 1777, Flag Resolution of the Second Continental Congress
Second Continental Congress
The Second Continental Congress was a convention of delegates from the Thirteen Colonies that started meeting on May 10, 1775, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, soon after warfare in the American Revolutionary War had begun. It succeeded the First Continental Congress, which met briefly during 1774,...

, and flew for the first time on September 3, 1777—well after Washington's crossing in 1776. The historically accurate flag would have been the Grand Union Flag
Grand Union Flag
The Grand Union Flag is considered to be the first national flag of the United States. This flag consisted of 13 red and white stripes with the British Union Flag of the time The Grand Union Flag (also the Continental Colors, the Congress Flag, the Cambridge Flag, and the First Navy Ensign) is...

, officially hoisted by Washington himself on January 2, 1776, at Cambridge, Massachusetts
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Cambridge is a city in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, United States, in the Greater Boston area. It was named in honor of the University of Cambridge in England, an important center of the Puritan theology embraced by the town's founders. Cambridge is home to two of the world's most prominent...

, as the standard of the Continental Army
Continental Army
The Continental Army was formed after the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War by the colonies that became the United States of America. Established by a resolution of the Continental Congress on June 14, 1775, it was created to coordinate the military efforts of the Thirteen Colonies in...

 and the first national flag
National flag
A national flag is a flag that symbolizes a country. The flag is flown by the government, but usually can also be flown by citizens of the country.Both public and private buildings such as schools and courthouses may fly the national flag...


Artistic concerns motivated further deviations from historical (and physical) accuracy. For example, the boat (of the wrong model) looks too small to carry all occupants and stay afloat, but this emphasizes the struggle of the rowing soldiers. There are phantom light sources besides the upcoming sun, as can be seen on the face of the front rower and shadows on the water, to add depth. The crossing took place in the dead of night, so there ought to have been little natural light, but this would have made for a very different painting. The river is modeled after the Rhine, where ice tends to form in crags as pictured, not in broad sheets as is more common on the Delaware. (However, it is speculated that the Delaware River
Delaware River
The Delaware River is a major river on the Atlantic coast of the United States.A Dutch expedition led by Henry Hudson in 1609 first mapped the river. The river was christened the South River in the New Netherland colony that followed, in contrast to the North River, as the Hudson River was then...

 really was frozen over as depicted because of the Little Ice Age
Little Ice Age
The Little Ice Age was a period of cooling that occurred after the Medieval Warm Period . While not a true ice age, the term was introduced into the scientific literature by François E. Matthes in 1939...

 that was occurring at the time.) Also, the Delaware at what is now called Washington Crossing is far narrower than the river depicted in the painting. It was also raining during the crossing. Next, the men did not bring horses across the river in the boats. Finally, Washington's stance, obviously intended to depict him in a hero
A hero , in Greek mythology and folklore, was originally a demigod, their cult being one of the most distinctive features of ancient Greek religion...

ic fashion, would have been very hard to maintain in the stormy conditions of the crossing. Debunkers of the painting's historical accuracy have traditionally said that Washington would have been sitting down; historian David Hackett Fischer
David Hackett Fischer
David Hackett Fischer is University Professor and Earl Warren Professor of History at Brandeis University. Fischer's major works have tackled everything from large macroeconomic and cultural trends to narrative histories of significant events to explorations of...

 has argued, however, that everyone would have been standing up to avoid the icy water in the bottom of the boat (the actual boats used have higher sides).

In popular culture

  • "Washington Crossing the Delaware
    Washington Crossing the Delaware (sonnet)
    Washington Crossing the Delaware is a sonnet that was written in 1936 by David Shulman. The title and subject of the poem refer to the scene in the painting Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze...

    " is also the title of a 1936 sonnet
    A sonnet is one of several forms of poetry that originate in Europe, mainly Provence and Italy. A sonnet commonly has 14 lines. The term "sonnet" derives from the Occitan word sonet and the Italian word sonetto, both meaning "little song" or "little sound"...

     by David Shulman
    David Shulman
    David Shulman was an American lexicographer and cryptographer.He contributed many early usages to the Oxford English Dictionary and is listed among . He felt most at home in the New York Public Library, undertaking his lexicographic research there and donating many valuable items to it...

    . It refers to the scene in the painting, and is a 14-line rhyming sonnet of which every line is an anagram
    An anagram is a type of word play, the result of rearranging the letters of a word or phrase to produce a new word or phrase, using all the original letters exactly once; e.g., orchestra = carthorse, A decimal point = I'm a dot in place, Tom Marvolo Riddle = I am Lord Voldemort. Someone who...

     of the title.
  • William H. Powell produced a painting that owes an artistic debt to Luetze's work, depicting Oliver Perry transferring command from one ship to another during the Battle of Lake Erie
    Battle of Lake Erie
    The Battle of Lake Erie, sometimes called the Battle of Put-in-Bay, was fought on 10 September 1813, in Lake Erie off the coast of Ohio during the War of 1812. Nine vessels of the United States Navy defeated and captured six vessels of Great Britain's Royal Navy...

     during the War of 1812
    War of 1812
    The War of 1812 was a military conflict fought between the forces of the United States of America and those of the British Empire. The Americans declared war in 1812 for several reasons, including trade restrictions because of Britain's ongoing war with France, impressment of American merchant...

    . The original painting now hangs in the Ohio Statehouse
    Ohio Statehouse
    The Ohio Statehouse, located in Columbus, Ohio, is the house of government for the state of Ohio. The Greek Revival building houses the Ohio General Assembly and the ceremonial offices of the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Treasurer, and Auditor....

    , and Powell later created a larger, more light toned rendering of the same subject which hangs in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. In both of Powell's works, Perry is shown standing in a small boat rowed by several men in uniform. The Washington painting shows the direction of travel from right to left, and the Perry image shows a reverse direction of motion, but the two compositions are still amazingly similar. Both paintings feature one occupant of the boat with a bandaged head.
  • Washington Rallying the Troops at Monmouth, Leutze's companion piece to Washington Crossing the Delaware is displayed in the Heyns (East) Reading Room of Doe Library
    University of California, Berkeley Library System
    The University of California, Berkeley's 32 constituent and affiliated libraries together make it the fourth largest university library by number of volumes in the United States, surpassed only by the libraries of Harvard, Yale, and the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign...

     at the University of California, Berkeley
    University of California, Berkeley
    The University of California, Berkeley , is a teaching and research university established in 1868 and located in Berkeley, California, USA...

  • In 1953 the American
    United States
    The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

     Pop Art
    Pop art
    Pop art is an art movement that emerged in the mid 1950s in Britain and in the late 1950s in the United States. Pop art challenged tradition by asserting that an artist's use of the mass-produced visual commodities of popular culture is contiguous with the perspective of fine art...

    ist Larry Rivers
    Larry Rivers
    Larry Rivers was an American artist, musician, filmmaker and occasional actor. Rivers resided and maintained studios in New York City, Southampton, New York and Zihuatanejo, Mexico.-Biography:...

     painted his version of Washington Crossing the Delaware which is in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art in New York City
    New York City
    New York is the most populous city in the United States and the center of the New York Metropolitan Area, one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world. New York exerts a significant impact upon global commerce, finance, media, art, fashion, research, technology, education, and...

  • Grant Wood
    Grant Wood
    Grant DeVolson Wood was an American painter, born four miles east of Anamosa, Iowa. He is best known for his paintings depicting the rural American Midwest, particularly the painting American Gothic, an iconic image of the 20th century.- Life and career :His family moved to Cedar Rapids after his...

     makes direct use of Leutze's painting in his own Daughters of Revolution. The painting is a direct jab at the D.A.R., scrutinizing what Wood interpreted as their unfounded elitism.
  • The painting is obtainable in the video game Animal Crossing as the "Classic Painting".
  • Movie poster of Winnie the Pooh (2011) features the characters of Winnie and his friends in a honeypot, floating in honey. Tigger is the rower, with Winnie stylized as Washington.http://disneyetc.blogspot.com/2011/02/brilliant-new-pooh-poster.html
  • Depicted by Solid Rock Baptist Church of Berlin, NJ
    Berlin, New Jersey
    Berlin is a Borough in Camden County, New Jersey, United States. As of the 2010 United States Census, the borough population was 7,588.Berlin was incorporated as a borough on March 29, 1927, from portions of Berlin Township, based on the results of a referendum held on April 26,...

     in the 2011 Berlin 4th of July Parade Celebration.


At least three times in the 20th century, and as recently as 2002, American grade school administrators stepped in to alter textbook reproductions of the iconic painting because Washington's watch fob was painted too close to his crotch for their comfort, possibly resembling male genitalia. In Georgia in 1999, for example, Muscogee County teachers' aides painted out the timepiece by hand on 2,300 copies. And in Cobb County, Georgia
Cobb County, Georgia
Cobb County is a county located in the U.S. state of Georgia. Its county seat and largest city is Marietta, which is located in the center of the county. The county was named for Thomas Willis Cobb, who in the early 19th century was a United States representative and senator from Georgia...

, the page with the offending reproduction was completely torn out.

Further reading

  • Anne Hawkes Hutton, Portrait of Patriotism: Washington Crossing the Delaware. Chilton Book Company, 1975. ISBN 0-8019-6418-0. A detailed history of the painting, the actual crossing of the Delaware by American forces, and the life of Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze.
  • David Hackett Fischer, Washington's Crossing. Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-19-517034-2. A detailed military history of George Washington's attack on Trenton; the introduction offers a close look at Leutze's painting.

External links