Washington Crossing the Delaware

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This article is about the 1851 painting. For the 1953 painting, see Washington Crossing the Delaware (1953 painting). For the poem, see Washington Crossing the Delaware (sonnet). For the actual event, see Washington's crossing of the Delaware River.
Washington Crossing the Delaware
Emanuel Leutze (American, Schwäbisch Gmünd 1816–1868 Washington, D.C.) - Washington Crossing the Delaware - Google Art Project.jpg
Artist Emanuel Leutze
Year 1851
Type Oil on canvas
Dimensions 378.5 cm × 647.7 cm (149 in × 255 in)
Location Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Washington Crossing the Delaware is an 1851 oil-on-canvas painting by the German American artist Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze. It commemorates General George Washington's crossing of the Delaware River on the night of December 25–26, 1776, during the American Revolutionary War. That action was the first move in a surprise attack against the Hessian forces at Trenton, New Jersey, in the Battle of Trenton.

The original was part of the collection at the Kunsthalle in Bremen, Germany, and was destroyed in a British air raid in 1942, during World War II. Leutze painted two more versions, one of which is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The other was in the West Wing reception area of the White House, but is now in possession of The Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona, Minnesota.[1]


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. 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, among them Worthington Whittredge and Andreas Achenbach, Leutze finished the first painting in 1850. Just after it was completed, the first version was damaged by fire in his studio,[2] subsequently restored, and acquired by the Kunsthalle Bremen. In 1942, during World War II, it was destroyed in a bombing raid by the British Royal Air Force, 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 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 by John Stewart Kennedy in 1897.

The painting was lent at least twice in its history. In the early 1950s, it was part of an exhibition in Dallas, Texas. Then, beginning in 1952, it was exhibited for several years at the United Methodist Church in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania, not far from the scene of the painting. Today, it is on exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In January 2002, the painting was defaced when a former Metropolitan Museum of Art guard glued a picture of the September 11 attacks to it. No major damage was caused to the painting.[3]

The simple frame that had been with the painting for over 90 years turned out not to be the original frame that Leutze designed. A photograph taken by Matthew Brady in 1864 was found in the New York Historical Society in 2007 showing the painting in a spectacular eagle crested frame. The 12’ X 21’ carved replica frame was created using this photo by Eli Wilner & Company in New York City.. The carved eagle-topped crest alone is 14' wide.


The painting depicted on the New Jersey state quarter.

The painting is notable for its artistic composition. General Washington 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 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 wearing what appears to be Native American garb, possibly representing colonial appropriation of previously indigenous holdings, but also possibly to represent the idea that all people in the new United States of America were represented as present in the boat along with Washington on his way to victory and success.

The man standing next to Washington and holding the flag is Lieutenant James Monroe, future President of the United States. Also, General Edward Hand is shown seated and holding his hat within the vessel.

Historical inaccuracies

The flag depicted is the original flag of the United States (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, 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, officially hoisted by Washington himself on January 1, 1776, at Somerville, Massachusetts, as the standard of the Continental Army and the first 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 jagged chunks as pictured, not in broad sheets as is more common on the Delaware. (However, it is speculated that the Delaware River really was frozen over as depicted because of the Little Ice Age that was occurring at the time.)[citation needed] 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 or field guns across the river in the boats, but instead had them transported by ferries. Finally, Washington's stance, obviously intended to depict him in a heroic fashion, would have been very hard to maintain in the stormy conditions of the crossing. Considering that he is standing in a rowboat, such a stance would have risked capsizing the boat. However, historian David Hackett Fischer has argued that everyone would have been standing up to avoid the icy water in the bottom of the boat (the actual Durham boats used have higher sides).[4]

In popular culture

  • "Washington Crossing the Delaware" is also the title of a 1936 sonnet by David Shulman. It refers to the scene in the painting, and is a 14-line rhyming sonnet of which every line is an anagram 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 during the War of 1812. The original painting now hangs in the Ohio Statehouse, 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 at the University of California, Berkeley.[5]
  • In 1953, the American Pop Artist Larry Rivers painted his version of Washington Crossing the Delaware which is in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art in New York City.[6]
  • Grant Wood 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.[1][2]
  • A pastiche titled "Jazzcats Crossing the Hudson" is on the cover of the Madlib album Advanced jazz.[3]


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 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.[7]


  1. "'Washington Crossing The Delaware' art piece on display at MMAM". News8000.com. Morgan Murphy Media. March 22, 2015. Retrieved December 15, 2015. 
  2. "Permanent Revolution". New York magazine. Sep 10, 2012. 
  3. Painting gets 9/11 Defacing
  4. Associated Press (December 24, 2011). "N.Y. museum to unveil more accurate version of George Washington's Delaware River crossing". NJ.com. The Star Ledger. Retrieved December 25, 2011. 
  5. Rallying the Troops in Doe Library
  6. On seeing Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Larry Rivers retrieved June 22, 2008
  7. Forgotten English, Jeffrey Kacirk, (c) 2009

Further reading

External links