Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware”


We have all suffered the experience of driving out of our way, sometimes hundreds of miles, to find ourselves unmoved by a place or a work of art for which we held high expectations.  Read the reviews of those visiting Mount Rushmore and complaining about the ten dollar parking fee, a sure sign that visiting the place left them extremely underwhelmed.

Visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see Emanuel Luetze’s famous “Washington Crossing the Delaware” was, to me, well worth the trip.  (There are also a number of other historically significant paintings that I will write about tomorrow.)

First of all, there is the size of the thing.  Nobody quite prepares you to see just how large it is at 378.5 cm × 647.7 cm (149 in × 255 in).

There are those who have criticized the painting since its inception, arguing that it is an unrealistic portrayal.  Would Washington have stood up so?  And is that a woman back there?  And an African American?  Surely that couldn’t be…


The complainers are missing the representational aspect of this.  No, there were no women on that boat probably, but women fought alongside men on numerous occasions and were a large part of the war effort.  Ditto African Americans…this was the first integrated army, and the only integrated army until World War II.

Henry James wrote about his experience of seeing the painting as a child of eight.  He later recalled that no impression of his youth was “half so momentous as that of the epoch-making masterpiece of Mr. Leutze, which showed us Washington crossing the Delaware, in a wondrous flare of projected gaslight and with the effect of a revelation.”  James recalled that he “gaped responsive at every item, lost in the marvel of wintry light, of the sharpness of the ice-blocks, the sickness of the sick soldier.”  He felt himself inspired by “the profiled national hero’s purpose, as might be said, of standing up, as much as possible, even indeed of doing it almost on one leg, in such difficulties.”

Washington’s crossing of the Delaware was a key moment in the war, a moment that helped save the army from virtual annihilation from within.  To hear the story of Washington, the General, you can join Bow Tie Tours  for our Valley Forge Tour.












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