Feb. 18, 2002
-- Picking out the historical flaws in Emmanuel Leutze's 1851 painting, George Washington Crossing the Delaware
, has become something of a pastime for the art and history buffs that view the 21-foot-wide painting hanging in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
For one thing, the flag unfurling behind Washington's head didn't exist at the time of the crossing, Christmas 1776. The "Stars and Stripes" didn't replace the Grand Union Flag until six months after the event depicted. What's more, the boats used by the Continental Army would have been different, the time of day is wrong (it was actually night), and the jagged chunks of ice floating near the boat would have been smoothed over by the flow of the river. And there's no way Washington could have stood up for the journey without losing his footing and being tossed into the freezing water.
As part of the year-long series Present at the Creation
, NPR's Ina Jaffe
reports for Morning Edition
that Leutze's intentions had more to do with the spirit of freedom and revolution than any historical reality.
Still, the painting has come to symbolize much more to American viewers. Carrie Barrett, curator of American art at the Met, notes that most people see the painting more as a historical document of the American Revolution than a work of art.
"The subject matter is so overwhelming (that) it doesn't become discussed as a painting so much," Barrett says. "It's a shame. People should know the elements of its creation."
The iconic Washington Crossing
wasn't even painted in the United States, but in Germany. In the years following the German Revolution of 1848, Leutze and his artist friends set up shop in a cavernous Dusseldorf studio, entranced by the spirit of uprising.
Barbara Groseclose, Leutze's biographer, says that he was drawn to history painting as a way to convey large abstract ideas.
She notes that the painter kept a journal, in which he wrote, "I think that what would make important art is art that shows the cycle of freedom, from its very beginnings to where it flowers in the United States."
Leutze's models, draped from head to foot in American Revolution-era garb and forced to stand motionless for hours on end, could not possibly have imagined that their likenesses would one day grace the "tails" side of a commemorative quarter honoring New Jersey's 1787 statehood.
Leutze, however, very much appreciated the act that allowed statehood to exist in the first place: the American Revolutionary War, and more specifically, the stealthy midnight crossing.
At the moment of creation, the German revolution had all but failed, and like the soldiers surrounding Washington in the painting, the idealistic artist must have felt the sting of a losing battle, mixed with a surge of hope that victory might lie just across the river.
"The promise of democracy was lost just a year into these revolutions. But if you had someone like George Washington at the helm, all could be saved," Barrett says, looking back on Leutze's inspiration. "(The painting) wasn't conceived as a monument to American patriotism. It was conceived as a work of revolutionary genius."
More than 150 years, a few factual errors, and a commemorative quarter later, it's that revolutionary spirit that elevates Leutze's image from flawed historical document to revolutionary icon.
View details of the painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Visit the site of Washington's crossing
Read about the black oarsman
pictured in the painting
Read an American Art essay on Leutze
Learn more about the New Jersey quarter