Inspired by the freedom of his adopted country, German-American artist Emanuel Leutze has painted the most iconic scenes in our nation’s history
It is the night of December 25, 1776, and ice is filling the Delaware River. The men of the Continental Army shiver as they cross under the cover of night, en route to engage the Hessian troops at Trenton, New Jersey. Standing in the boat is a resolute George Washington, his face armed for the battle ahead. Before the men boarded the boats, Washington had officers read to his soldiers the words to Thomas Paine’s “The American Crisis,” written a few days earlier, December 23, 1776. The first paragraph of the pamphlet reads reads as follows:
“These are the times that try the souls of men. The summer soldier and the patriot of the sun will, in this crisis, withdraw from the service of their country; but whoever stands by it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily defeated; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the fight, the more glorious the triumph. What we get too cheaply, we estimate too lightly: it is dearness alone that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a fair price on its goods; and it would be really strange if an article as heavenly as Freedom was not highly rated.
Painted in 1851 by Emanuel Leutze, “Washington Crossing the Delaware” immortalizes the image of the ragtag Continental army marching out of Valley Forge to engage the forces of the largest nation in the world at the time. It is, deservedly, one of the most often reproduced images in American history. Open any good textbook on the subject, and there it is. Leutze’s portrait of Washington still arouses wonder today.
A century after its creation, American artist Norman Rockwell even painted a “paint-in-a-paint” of this iconic work for a 1951 Saturday Evening Post cover. In Rockwell’s painting, a group of schoolchildren and their teacher stand before Leutze’s large painting in awe. Here, Rockwell pays homage to “Washington Crossing the Delaware” and its priceless illumination of our history for many generations.
This was not Leutze’s first painting of this scene. His original painting of the historic crossing, in 1850, became part of the collection of the Künsthalle in Bremen, Germany. It was destroyed by an Allied bombardment in 1942. In fact, this first masterpiece almost did not even leave his studio; it was damaged by fire in 1850 when his workshop burned down. Leutze restored the original, and it was the one that remained in Germany until it was destroyed.
Leutze made two more renderings of the scene. One is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. After its display in New York in 1851, the painting was purchased by a private collector but was later donated to the museum in 1897. The other rendering found its way to the West Wing of the White House until be sold to the Minnesota Marine Art Museum. in Winona, Minnesota in 2015.
There is a strong allegorical component to the painting: the determined position of Washington, the triangular composition and the illuminating sky. In truth, this scene is not entirely accurate. Idealized, this painting remains a testament to the valor of Washington and the Continental Army. The night was reported to be dark and miserable with freezing precipitation (ice and snow) soaking the men in the boats. The Durham boats that Washington actually used were larger than what Leutze had depicted. If Washington had actually stood in a boat that size, he would probably have fallen overboard. In the larger boats, the men could indeed have stood upright, wedged against the swell, to avoid any contact with the cold bottom of the boat.
A few men did fall overboard that night, but no one perished in the river. Several men died of exposure during the march to surprise the Hessians. The surprise worked, however, and Washington’s men captured 900 troops, which changed the tide of the war. The event, and its subsequent portrayal by Leutze, will find their permanent place in American memory. Leutze also painted a complementary work, “Washington Rallying the Troops at Monmouth”, commemorating another Revolutionary War battle in New Jersey.
How did a man born in 1816 in Schwäbisch-Gmünd, in the Kingdom of Württemberg (now part of Germany), come to paint such an iconic American historical scene? The story begins when he was 9 years old. His parents came to America as political refugees, settling first in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and then in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Young Emanuel’s father was sickly; the youngster spent long hours supporting himself. It was during this time that he developed his drawing skills. By age 14, he was selling portraits he had painted for around $5 apiece. When his father died, he was able to support himself through his painting.
In 1834 he began studying under John Rubens Smith, a Philadelphia portrait painter who had come to the United States from London, England. Smith had studied art at the Royal Academy. Leutze, after achieving some success as an artist, returned to Europe to attend the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf art school. From there he traveled to Munich, Bavaria, studying the works of Nazarene painter Peter von Cornelius and history painter Wilhelm von Kaulbach. It was here that he completed his great work, “Columbus before the Queen”, in 1843. The explorer appears before the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, after being brought back in chains after being replaced as governor in the new Spanish colonies . Leutze would visit the Columbus theme at least six times in other works.
Emanuel Leutze returned to the United States in 1859, opening a studio in New York. He divided his time between New York and Washington, where he created portraits of notable individuals, including Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney. The portrait, painted just two years after the infamous Dred Scott decision, was described by former US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as follows:
“[Taney is depicted] in black, seated in a shaded red chair, left hand resting on a pad of paper in his lap, right hand hanging limply, almost lifeless, beside the inside arm of the chair. He sits facing the viewer and looks straight ahead. There seems to be on his face, and in his sunken eyes, an expression of deep sadness and disillusion.”
Such was the artist’s masterful ability to capture a likeness and a moment in history.
In 1860, Leutze received a commission to paint the United States Capitol mural, “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way”, or “Westward Ho”, as it is sometimes called. The painting dramatically shows the exploration and settlement of the American frontier. Explorers and families in covered wagons travel through a dramatic mountain range to the western shores. Lewis and Clark, Daniel Boone and the countless Pilgrims who headed west are remembered in “Westward Ho”.
Leutze’s art examined the contrast between European monarchies and the American experience of self-government. Indeed, he looked forward to the day when representative government could finally come to the German people. His painting of “George Washington Crossing the Delaware” is mainly directed towards these aspirations and was aimed at the inhabitants of the various states that would become Germany. Leutze died in Washington, DC, in 1868 of heat exhaustion while preparing to paint another large work. It would have been titled “The Emancipation of Slaves”, proving once again the love of the great artist for freedom and his adopted country.
This article originally appeared in American Essence magazine.