Emmanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851, collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC


Rethinking Washington Crossing the Delaware


By Craig McDaniel


The Montréal Review, February 2023



“The achievements of Washington and his little band of compatriots between the 25th of December and the 4th of January, a space of 10 days, were the most brilliant of any recorded in the annals of military achievements.”

Frederick the Great

We’re in New York City, the Metropolitan Museum of Art; our target –  Emmanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware. Across the gallery, what catches us off-guard is the gold frame. It’s bigger and brighter than we recall. With an eagle the size of a California condor. Drawing closer, however, it’s the scale and style of the painting inside the frame that grabs our attention and won’t let go. No one paints like this anymore. No one can paint like this anymore. Painstakingly well-crafted – such an artwork is what French academic artists once called a grande machine (“great machine”). The canvas, 12 feet 5 inches high, by 21 feet 3 inches wide, envelops a viewer’s entire field of vision. The imagery freezes time, at a peak moment, more tableau vivant than mere illustration.

The figures in the lead boat form a triangle – a classic composition – with George Washington’s unmistakable profile (a prow for a nose) and a furled American flag marking the apex. A soldier strains to push a chunk of ice out of the boat’s path; strewn across the river, more ice chunks shimmer like minerals. Overhead, the sky glows. The fading light of a winter’s night? The illumination of divine providence? The final shreds of visibility before darkness closes in?

This is history painting, a carefully composed image locked within a narrative arc. By late 1776, the situation for the American revolutionists is in danger of deteriorating to a lost cause. Morale plummets; winning the conflict seems increasingly out of reach. The ragtag Continental Army faces the well-heeled forces of British redcoats and Hessian troops (German mercenaries hired by King George V in a deal with the German government). Plus, mustn’t forget the British Navy becomes an X-factor whenever fighting takes place near the seacoast and navigable inlets. (Think: Boston, New York City, Charleston.) By late December, severe weather clamps both sides. Threatening to make matters worse, many American soldiers are members of state militia whose temporary terms of service are drawing quickly to a close. Soon they will be free to leave, and Washington will be left in the lurch, a general without troops. (Remember: this is 1776. It will be fifteen years into their future, in 1791, that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, stating “a well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” takes effect.)

December 25. Christmas. The evening. 1776. Washington gambles. He concocts a complicated, risky operation, which must be done in utter secrecy: to move his troops and equipment, horses and artillery in a large flotilla across the Delaware River. His plan: to surprise the Hessian regiments in an isolated garrison, near Trenton, New Jersey. Washington is adept at deception. He needs to be. His soldiers lack proper clothing, many have makeshift weapons, and, at the start of the Revolution, the Continental Army’s store of gunpowder is much (much) less than the British estimate.

In contrast, the Hessians are well-trained, experienced, brutal; their presence on the side of Great Britain outrages the American colonists. Scares the Bejesus out of many. Washington biographer Ron Chernow assesses the situation: "At the [earlier] Battle of Brooklyn, the Hessians took no prisoners and oversaw mass executions, shooting in the head dozens of young Americans who tried to surrender; one Hessian decapitated an American prisoner and posted his head on a pike. These atrocities spread contagious fear among the American troops, but officers lost their nerve as well..." [253]

1. Debates over history painting

What is history painting? Painting that depicts events in history. But what is history? We’re circling, the mental quicksand of a tautology. Why this is important is because, for centuries, it was important. In European art, history painting was deemed the most esteemed of all the categories. For three reasons: because, first, it was hard to accomplish well. The logic being an artist needed a higher degree of skill to depict a scene with numerous figures, an array of textures (perhaps silk, brocade, suits of armor, stone walls), within an expansive scene (with buildings, trees, maybe a body of water). Second, the artist needed to conduct research, to learn what pivotal moment to depict, and to ‘nail down’ the cast of characters. And, third, the subject matter itself – history! – is, ipso facto, more significant than a portrait of a single person, a landscape, or a few objects on a table. But are these claims true? Or, instead, are they based not on facts, but on values?

Emmanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, completed in 1850-51, at the half-way point of the 19th century, became a flash point for debate in the Antebellum period, leading up to the American Civil War. Historian Jochen Wierich summarizes, “[there is] a central problem in making sense of the changing status of history painting around the middle of the nineteenth century. History painting was simultaneously a source of authority and an object of ridicule.” [19] Criticism centered on a call to expand history and history painting – to feature not just famous (white) men but ordinary people, including women and children, and other ethnicities. A result: the domestication of history painting.

Mid-nineteenth century critics also call out Leutze for his approach to painting. According to naysayers, Washington Crossing the Delaware is yet one more overblown image that repeats a long-standing illusionary style. Forward-thinking artists seek their own freedom to experiment and invent novel approaches. They place their emphasis on factors that make a painting a painting. By the final decades of the 19th century and into the 20th century, Modernism begins to be championed by the most progressive artists, critics, collectors, and curators. To these members of the avant-garde, Leutze’s approach appears increasingly dated. Out of step with the changing paradigm. As French painter Maurice Denis [1870-1943] famously declares, “Remember, that a picture, before it is a picture of a battle horse, a nude woman, or some story, is essentially a flat surface covered in colors arranged in a certain order.” The art world isn’t the world, however, and a large proportion of the viewing public continues to not just admire, but revere traditional pictorial painting; and, in particular, Washington Crossing the Delaware remains widely popular with the American public who view it as an icon of patriotism and a fabulous picture that makes you feel like you are there.

Starting in the 1950s, American artists begin to use Leutze’s painting as a springboard into their own artistic explorations. American Larry Rivers’ Washington Crossing the Delaware (1953), combines an exploration of the intuitive brushstrokes of abstract expressionism (then in its heyday) with a strategy of unpacking how pictorial representation operates. In an interview, Rivers explains, “I kept wanting to make a picture out of a national myth, to accept the ‘impossible’ and the ‘corny’ as a challenge . . . I wanted to paint something in the tradition of the Salon picture, which modern artists hold in contempt. Besides, there was plenty in ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’ to dazzle me—horses, water, soldiers, and so on.” [quoted in Sam Hunter, Rivers, p. 19] In conjunction with the completion of his painting, Rivers produced a number of exceptional pencil drawings on paper that capture details with the artist’s uncanny elan.

Larry Rivers, Study for Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1953, pencil on paper, 11” x 13 5/8”, collection of Museum of Modern Art, reproduced: Fair Use

With the rise of Pop Art (in the 1960s) public reception of Leutze’s “masterpiece” cools and ironic take-offs gain traction. For example, in 1975, American Peter Saul paints his version of Washington Crossing the Delaware in day-glo colors with the aesthetics of 1970s Pop culture (a la Zap comics). Leutze’s image is an especially tempting target for artists to diversify both sides of the equation, broadening art’s subject matter and art’s audience. For example, also in 1975, Robert Colescott paints his rendition, changing the racial make-up of the cast to depict George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Text. And, in 2010, Roger Shimomura completes Shimomura Crossing the Delaware, a large acrylic painting that blends Leutze’s original composition with the graphic style of the Japanese printmaker Hokusai. Shimomura places himself as the lead figure in the boat, surrounded by samurai warriors. Shimomura cleverly recapitulates a chapter in the history of artistic influence: the importation of Japanese graphics exerted a substantial impact on European modernism in the decades immediately after Leutze’s completion of his Washington Crossing. Shimomura’s imagery challenges the nearsightedness of an(y) American history that overlooks the contributions of our diverse immigrants.

Artists continue to create compelling work that builds off of, and critiques, Leutze’s historic painting. Expanding the topic northward, in 2019, Kent Monkman, a First Nations | Cree artist, born in Ottawa, Canada, finishes two acrylic paintings – now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art – that rival Leutze’s painting in size and expand the perspective to the deeper history of an entire continent. The second painting in the pair, entitled mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People): Resurgence of the People, symbolizes Indigenous peoples’ endurance in the face of long-standing colonizing pressures. Building off the composition of Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, Monkman depicts a different journey, over a larger body of water – a journey in which the artist’s own alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, presides magically, majestically. (Are you curious? Go to the Met’s website to view reproductions.)

2.   Lesson in Looking: telescopic vision

While artists continue to pivot from Leutze’s art to their own political and aesthetic viewpoints, this essay strives to find fresh urgency in looking squarely at the painting Emmanuel Leutze completed 175 years ago. To do so, we want to consider what Leutze painted, and how he painted.

LESSON IN LOOKING: The choice an artist makes in defining the distance of the viewpoint is a key factor in composing a realistic depiction. Its effect is powerful, although under-recognized or misunderstood by most viewers.

A painted depiction that gives the convincing illusion of seeing three-dimensional forms on a two-dimensional surface is a tricky procedure, both to accomplish and to define. Once often referred to as ‘realism’ in European and North American art history texts, today the term is often avoided because ‘realism’ means something different in different cultures. Illusionary representation (for those who seek it) is not a matter of simply painting things the way they appear to a living, moving human being. Rudolf Arnheim explains in his classic treatment Art and Visual Perception: “. . . just as persons of our own civilization and century may perceive a particular manner of representation as lifelike .. . so do the adherents of other approaches find their preferred manner of representation not only acceptable, but entirely lifelike.” [136] To serve as a convincing representation, the artist chooses strategies for image-making; these strategies are always synthetic. Transforming the three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional image consists of a complex process of choosing, inventing and discovering – of manifesting meaning through a symbolic system of visual forms.

An important consideration for the artist is what distance from the subjects should the representation represent?  Should the image be created so that the subjects appear close at hand /or/ far away? Are there other alternatives? Consider a detail from Leutze’s painting:

Detail of Washington Crossing the Delaware

In the detail, soldiers in the foreground appear life-like by traditional Western (i.e., European) academic standards and modes of representation. What does this mean? Their faces, for example, seem consistent in scale with the size of their hands and arms; and the heads and bodies of all the soldiers in the boat appear equivalent in size – no body parts loom large or shrink when seen in perspective. There’s a level playing field of attention: no person is emphasized, by relative size, more than another. How did the painter produce such an image?

Leutze provides a view that appears to be an intimate close-up. We feel, in looking at the painting, as if we zoom in on each individual. If we were there, in person, standing before the painting, less than ten feet from the surface of the canvas, the figures in the boat would appear life-size. And, appearing life-size, they seem as if they exist a few feet behind the front surface of the canvas. Leutze’s portrayal, while appearing to be a straightforward process – of painting the subject matter as life-like as he can – is the result of a complex strategy Leutze learned through academic training. The painter has painted the figures working from life models (in his studio in Germany, Leutze posed each figure separately). Each figure is painted from a perspective that is perpendicular to that figure (the way a frieze arranges figures). Additionally, each figure is depicted from enough distance away that all the body parts appear equal in scale.

Consider these images of a ceramic bulldog:

Image A

Image B

Image C   [note: Image A is a detail from Image C]

Images A and B appear to be close-ups; they seem to show the dog from an equal distance away. Image C shows the dog from a much greater distance. Looking carefully, however, you’ll discover that Image A is a detail cropped from Image C. Image A is actually a distant view altered to appear close. Image B is the only true close-up image. Notice, in B, that the dog’s paws are shown at a steep angle; and they appear relatively small, while the dog’s head looms large and projects forward in space. Image B is the more accurate, customary view of the dog in proximity. Appendages loom and shrink according to the depth of those body parts from the perspective of the viewer.

The figures in the foreground boat in Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware have been created by the artist using a process that builds on what I term telescopic vision. All the figures appear in a highly ordered view, no body parts appear to be closer (and therefore loom larger). We can see what care Leutze took to coordinate the composition. A substantial portion of each figure is open for scrutiny; the figures become empowered – notice many men have both hands visible in the composition. (Hands are metonyms for agency, for self-directed action.) These qualities in the painting didn’t occur by happenstance. A contemporaneous snapshot or sketch of a crossing would show figures in a helter-skelter array of positions, including the directions their faces look, where their hands are, and, if the viewpoint were close, some body parts would be enlarged considerably relative to others.

In contrast, Leutze’s painting grants much more consistent size and visual emphasis to every figure in the foreground boat. The result – all men are created equal becomes an embodied aspect of the vast panorama. From a distance, the ‘telescopic’ view appears natural. As we draw close to the painting, however, the telescoping effect becomes more pronounced, and more distinct. The closer we approach the figures in Washington’s boat, the more we should expect them to loom and distort, as some appendages become much closer to our viewpoint. If we were in an actual boat on the Delaware, pulling alongside Washington’s boat, the oars, hands, and arms of the figures closest to us would enlarge greatly compared to the figures farther away. Instead, Leutze painted each soldier in the lead boat from an equivalent perspective, perpendicular to the picture plane. Each soldier is a unique individual – as unique as a General – who commands his own center of attention. With the telescopic view at his command, Leutze’s painting combines the clarity of a close-up with the elegance of distance.

3. The representation of representation

Washington Crossing the Delaware is a representational painting. The imagery – figures, faces, oars, chunks of ice, boats, sky, flag – are created by signs. Leutze did not use flesh and cloth, he applied paint in shapes that signify Washington and his army. The painting is a representation – the orchestration of a symbolic process the viewer decodes, making sense of the imagery. Each viewer supplies an interpretation of a representation.

Leutze understands that his painting transforms the three-dimensional setting (the river, riverbank, boats, men, etcetera) into a two-dimensional depiction. Like other representational artists of the era, Leutze delights in how a painting – the painting he is painting -- can toggle back and forth from the three-dimensional (the painting’s imagery) to the two-dimensional (the painted surface). The representation of representation: the painting performs this shift whenever the imagery becomes a bold pattern that flattens perspective. Look at Leutze’s arrangement of oars and guns and flagpole. Their distinctive, rhythmic arrangement exists in a two-fold dynamic: parallels, perpendiculars, and angles of linear elements continue to ‘read’ as the representation of physical objects that occupy space, angling into and out of depth; and, simultaneously, the same oars, guns, and flagpole ‘read’ as elements in a pattern that dances across the picture plane (the painting’s flat front surface).

As if the visual complexities of representation weren’t enough, the imagery in the painting represents yet another meaning of representation – a form of political governance in which elected officials represent their constituents. Leutze’s painting represents this type of representation as a key cognitive element that forms an essential (verbal) background to the narrative depicted.

The Declaration of Independence, adopted July 4, 1776, makes explicit the reasons for the revolution: twenty-seven grievances are spelled out. Taxation without representation is a major one. What does winning the war aim to accomplish? The aims are basic and boldly stated: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights...

Yet there’s a truth that is hard to fully fathom: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, that golden triad of human ‘rights,’ are no more than what any ordinary black bear or wolverine, or barn owl expects.         

Not to be overlooked – the lead boat carries a black man – third from the front, pulling an oar. For the record: historians cite two black men who accompanied Washington on the crossing – Prince Whipple and Oliver Cromwell. One of them, most likely Prince Whipple, is depicted as an oarsman in Leutze’s painting. Also, something we don’t want to overlook: Washington is a man of complexity, and contradictions. He owned slaves. And, sadly, he avoided steps he might have to support abolition. (A man of his times, a Virginian? Or, a man who failed, in this, to rise above his times?)

4. Who is the audience?

In 1850, as the seventy-fifth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776) and the Crossing of the Delaware was drawing near, an American artist of German ancestry, Emmanuel Leutze (1816 – 1868) completes Washington Crossing the Delaware. (Near at hand: 2026 will mark the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence’s signing.) He paints the picture not only for American viewers; in fact, his initial audience is Europeans. Why? Because Leutze hopes to bolster Europeans in their own cause in the pursuit of freedom and self-governance. Revolutions have occurred recently and widely, in Ireland, France, Italy, Germany, Poland, Austria, Hungary. Leutze’s goal: to provide inspiration through a first-rate, dramatic representation of the American hero and his army as they turned the tide for the American Revolution.

“In 1848, revolts against monarchies occurred across Europe, fueled by declining economic conditions, nationalist ambitions, demands for student and worker rights, and a call for expanded suffrage. These uprisings led to short-term gains for the masses but ultimately failed to achieve lasting change, and conservative forces quickly regained power. In the same era, the U.S. Congress was consumed by whether to permit enslavement in newly acquired lands, a key issue finally leading to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.”   [Jean Robertson and Deborah Hutton, et al., The History of Art: A Global View, p. 986.]

The first Washington Crossing the Delaware is damaged in a studio fire not long after the paint dries. The following year, undaunted, Leutze paints another, a duplicate of the first. Sold to a wealthy American collector, this is the Washington Crossing that gains widespread popularity as it tours the U.S., as small prints of the image are created and sold widely, and finally lands in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Let’s repeat, Leutze’s original goal is to inspire Europeans, Europeans who, very recently, saw their own dreams of forging more democratic forms of government dashed as revolutions in Europe of 1848 and 1849 are quashed in a resurgence of authoritarianism. What the artist produces isn’t only imagery that documents a moment in the midst of the river crossing on Christmas Day’s night, 1776. What Leutze paints is an image of a fresh form of leadership: Washington is the lead figure in the boat, but he is not the one pulling the oars, he is not the one guiding the rudder, he is not the one pushing danger out of the path. It is a team effort and everyone is necessary to the success of the mission. Leutze’s painting models a mode of leadership that Europeans, in the middle of the 19th century, are not accustomed to seeing. Not accustomed, in two key ways.

First, Washington is a different type of military leader, and Leutze’s depiction takes a perspective that is different, accordingly. In contrast to Leutze’s conception of Washington leading a team effort, Europeans were accustomed to paintings in which the leader (military, political, or spiritual) was placed in a position of supremacy. For example, French artist Jacques-Louis David’s painting of Napoleon, completed in 1801, shows the French military hero dominating the foreground. Napoleon is leading a surprise attack of his own – sneaking over the Alps. (A tactic no military campaign had attempted since Hannibal.) The rendition is over-the-top as David takes liberties with the historical record: Napoleon Bonaparte rode a mule over the mountain, not a prancing stallion that he controls with one hand! A few members of the French army are inserted into the landscape; they look miniscule, tucked under the horse’s belly and flying hooves, and along the left edge of the composition.

Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon Crossing the Alps, 1801

Secondly, Washington’s status as a military leader (of a fledgling democracy, a would-be nation) is also at odds with the authoritarian governments Europeans saw solidifying in the middle of the nineteenth century. Leutze’s depiction shows a painting of soldiers at war, but, doing so, he points the way to what a nation at peace needs. The entire scenario embodies the credo of individual agency that is the benchmark of a democratic government: we are all in the same boat. Notably, Leutze paints the soldiers in the boat as a heterogeneous lot. The leader is there too. He stands higher than the other figures, but he takes up no more space. British, French and German soldiers and officers, who fought against or alongside the Continental Army in the American Revolution, were flabbergasted that Washington could field an army composed of ordinary Americans (including many who were poor), who joined the fight for independence ill-equipped and ill-trained.

5. The irony of history

In Leutze’s painting, Washington and his army head across the river, to attack the German mercenaries. The original version of the painting remains in Europe. It is destroyed by the Allies in WWII fire-bombing of German cities.


“that an army reduced almost to nothing (by the expiration of short enlistments) should sometimes be five or six days together without bread, then as many without meat, and one or twice two or three without either; that the same army should have had numbers of men in it with scarcely clothes enough to cover their nakedness and a full fourth of it without even the shadow of a blanket, severe as the winter was, and that men under these circumstances were held together, is hardly within the bounds of credibility, but is nevertheless true.”

George Washington, letter to his brother Jack, July 6, 1780

6. The direction they head: crossing the river

In the painting, the boat is headed to the left. But where are they headed, geographically? The American troops are heading east across the Delaware River; their plan: a surprise attack on the day after Christmas, hoping to catch the Hessian soldiers off guard.  Look at a map:

Virtually any map shows North at the top; so, for the Continental Army to cross the Delaware River, heading east (on a map) means going to the right. This is the direction for a boat to go from Pennsylvania to New Jersey. When I wake in the morning, the first item I see is a small work of art, a needlepoint map a relative (my Great Aunt Edith) stitched a century ago.

Map stitched by Edith Mahoney, circa 1925.

Aunt Edith’s map shows the geography: Canada (to the North) is at the top on the left. The Delaware River flows southeasterly towards the Atlantic Ocean. Washington crosses the river, moving from Pennsylvania (on the western shore) to New Jersey (on the eastern shore). Left to right on any “prototypical” map of the period. Aunt Edith’s handiwork shows Washington’s crossing as one would expect: west to east, left to right. Here’s her rendition of Washington, in his boat, in the detail below:

Aunt Edith’s Washington Crossing the Delaware [detail of map]

7. Taking liberties

Leutze took liberties in his representation too. The actual boats that Washington secures for a crossing of such magnitude (men, horses, arms, equipment) on such a bold timetable – one night! – are 30 to 60-foot long flat-bottomed Durham boats. Maneuverable barges with rudders. Not the relatively small rowboats Leutze paints. This fudging of the historical record can be forgiven; we can chalk this up to Leutze’s aesthetic decision – he decides to paint an intimate, close-up view of Washington in the lead boat. He knows a bigger boat would burst the painting.

Not only is the size of the craft inaccurate, but Washington makes the crossing in advance of his army; accepting a great personal risk, he crosses to the New Jersey shore so he can give orders for the entire army’s crossing from the best possible vantage point. Here again, we forgive Leutze for playing with the facts – after all, he’s painting a drama, not journalism. Leutze has a story to tell and lessons to impart. Of leadership, of bravery, of camaraderie. The painting becomes more than a story, it becomes the metaphor of a journey, and, like all journeys, the imagery explores transformation. In this view, the placement of General Washington inside the lead boat becomes a necessary element. Does Leutze’s rendition contain elements of a myth? As Irish poet Pádraig Ó Tuama points out, “Important to remember that a myth is not something false, rather a myth is something with so much truth that it needs a fantastical container.”

8. The puzzle – one ‘solution’

Why did Leutze paint Washington’s boat heading to the left? One possible explanation: he isn’t constrained by the prototypical orientation of a map. (A map can be turned topsy-turvy, north can be at the bottom!) In this case, instead of establishing a viewpoint downriver (in which we look north to the boats), our viewpoint is positioned upriver, and we see the boats in our southward view. In this scenario, the painting is, theoretically, correct in its depiction of the Continental Army’s boats heading right to left – as they move from Pennsylvania to New Jersey.

Let’s consider this ‘solution’ carefully. The view of the crossing is from a position looking downriver, looking south. This viewpoint conforms to how, in Leutze’s painting, the crossing proceeds from right to left. However, and this is a big HOWEVER, upon reaching the other shore, landing his boat, and stepping into New Jersey, Washington finds he’s in a position to the north of his troops. In this scenario, when the Continental Army assembles for its march – at night, in the dark! – towards Trenton (to enact the plan of surprising the Hessians before dawn), they would naturally fall into line as they disembarked. Washington’s position on the New Jersey side of the river would now be in the most northern position, at the back of the line as the Continental Army begins to head south, towards Trenton. “At the back of the line” – not where Washington was (historically), or would ever wish to be.

So, the simplest solution – Leutze simply got it wrong, painting the painting over there in Germany. We can turn things around, right here:

9. Bravery vs. Courage

In a poem entitled “The Abnormal is Not Courage,” Jack Gilbert unmasks a misconception: true courage is more than one mad act of bravery. Gilbert’s poem opens with a captivating image – the Poles, at the start of the Second World War, riding out on horseback against the onslaught of attacking German tanks. An act of bravery, for sure. Passionate, startling. But, as the poet declares in the poem’s conclusion: courage is something of a different order. Courage is lasting: “The thing steady and clear. Then the crescendo. / The real form. The culmination. And the exceeding. / Not the surprise [our emphasis]. . . . Not the exception. The beauty / that is of many days. Steady and clear. . . ”

Leutze paints Washington Crossing the Delaware. But which crossing?

Option One. At the Christmas night 1776 crossing, the stakes couldn’t have been higher, but morale was low. Washington was desperate; he knew his gamble was ‘Victory or Death.’ Odds were against success. The Continental Army’s track record – up to this point – was horrendous. In late December, 1776, the colonists were coming off months of defeat – significantly, in New York City, as well as numerous smaller skirmishes. Crossing the Delaware on the night of December 25, Washington was rolling the dice – hoping against hope for a crazy hit. If Leutze’s painting focuses on this crossing of the Delaware, the spotlight focuses squarely on an act of bravery. An audacious moment, throwing all chips in.

Option Two. Immediately after their surprise victory against the Hessians in Trenton, the Continental Army crossed back (east to west), taking with them Hessian prisoners and the supply of muskets, horses, and foodstuffs that they gained from their victory.

10. Can going back(wards) be going forward?

What if Leutze wants to focus on courage, as Gilbert’s poem distinguishes it? What if we want to focus on courage – does the painting sustain such an engagement? What changes in the painting? Or, can it be, that the painting remains the same and what changes is our response to the painting as Leutze created it?  What if we say the crossing back, in the aftermath of their surprise attack at Trenton, is the crossing that Leutze paints?

Our new interpretation changes everything and changes nothing. The painting remains the same – in terms of imagery, brushstrokes, scale, frame, media. But our engagement with the painting changes; we see the painting in a new light. To us, now, Leutze’s painting connotes an altogether different state of affairs – the  heroic. Imagine the change in Washington’s mental state, and the mental state of the Continental Army, on the way back from that amazing victory over the Hessians in Trenton. Now, heading back they are feeling strengthened, more resolute, emboldened. Momentum has shifted; everyone feels it: now they have a chance. They only need to keep pressing forward. This deeper level of psychological dynamics flows from the interpretation that the painting represents the crossing as a crossing back, the boats heading right to left, east to west, from New Jersey back to Pennsylvania. Now Washington and his troops are resolute: this war will require persistence, a courage that is clear.

Take note: in the painting there’s a soldier positioned at the rear of Washington’s boat. A soldier with a head wound. He’s on his way back from the attack on December 26. Where are the Hessian prisoners? Of course they wouldn’t be in Washington’s boat. They are in some of those boats in the distance. And the celebratory huzzahs and drinking a bit of rum one expects from soldiers after a victory? That will come later, when they are back, safely in camp, in Pennsylvania.

11. The saga continues

In less than two weeks, the Continental Army crosses the Delaware again (another west to east passage).They head to Princeton, New Jersey, to show the Hessians Dec. 26, 1776, was no fluke. They are determined to continue what will be a very, very long, arduous war . . . a year later – after suffering a series of defeats (Brandywine, Germantown), the loss of Philadelphia to the British, starting in December, 1777, Washington’s army holes up for the harsh winter in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Talk about tough sledding. Many soldiers have no shoes. Disease runs rampant.

Any painting, like a boat crossing a river, cannot be overburdened with too much excess baggage. If we insist on going further, on exploring things the painting doesn’t contain but, in our view, should, then we enter the realm of criticism, or flights of fancy. In this case, our reading of history may tempt us to seek answers to questions Leutze’s artwork never embodies: for example, once the French affirm an official alliance with the United States, will the French general convince the Continental Congress that the French and American armies should invade Canada. Is this their primary aim – to drive the British out of the entire North American content? I find no support, however, to argue that this topic derives from the brushstrokes Leutze’s canvas contains. Leutze’s painting isn’t crafted to uphold any and all concerns of American Revolutionary War history, or what patriotism means or should mean. In our alternative interpretation, however, Washington Crossing the Delaware carries a solemn psychological charge. This shows on the faces of Washington and the men with him in the boat. Yes, the war will not be won in one crossing. Each time they cross, it is never the same river. But the goals remain. Liberty. And, then, and only then, peace. The image we see in Leutze’s painting is more than the spectacle of a single night. It is more than a single battle. (Indeed, the American Revolution will be a very long war. Not until late autumn, 1781 do Washington and the Continental Army achieve the decisive victory (only made possible with the aid of French troops and navy at Yorktown.)

This is an interpretation that engagement with the painting sustains. The representational strategy endows equality into the cast of characters assembled around Washington. And the painting embodies a form of leadership in which the General is less an Emperor and more a man who must answer to the elected representatives of Congress.

Earlier in this essay, I noted that history painting, as defined in the middle of the nineteenth century, came under critical attack. In the ensuing decades, Modernism won. Manet. Cezanne. Later seminal figures at the start of the 20th century continued to advance their creative practice in directions that [would seem to] distance their art further and further from the concerns of Emmanuel Leutze. As curator Claudine Grammont observes, Matisse “reimagined the idea of what a painting is and came to see it as an area of exchange, a site that reinforces viewers’ presence in the world, instead of projecting them into the illusionist depth of the Western artistic tradition inherited from the Renaissance.” [46] This essay opens a new view: we bring our perspective into the equation when we look at Emmanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware. We can see the painting through the lens of our own era. We are not limited to see the painting only in the way Leutze prioritized (we don’t submit to an ‘intentional fallacy’); Leutze painted more than he knew. And, rather than cleaving apart the possibilities of illusionist depth from the painting as its own reality, we can meld these two paradigms.1 Leutze’s painting becomes Leutze’s painting + us; now Washington Crossing the Delaware shares important dimensions with Matisse’s approach to painting, as defined by Grammont:

“It is a luminous expanse that extends far beyond its frame to enter the viewers’ domain . . . a painting [that is] no longer a substitute for a different reality but rather establishe[s] itself as a living environment.” [46] 

George Washington – and his troops – exhibit bravery and courage. Emmanuel Leutze’s painting shows both. The Continental Army is crossing in both directions: west to east on Christmas Day night, and then back, east to west, after their surprise victory. The surprise is not the attack; the surprise is the victory. The future stretches out before them, a vast, new shore to explore. Democracy and the freedom contained in its core require us, the viewers of the painting, to continue the process of crossing and crossing a river that is flowing.


1 In previous essays, I discuss how pictorial concoctions provide anomalous conditions for ‘traditional’ representation, creating unexpected, essential linkages with the Modernist program. See, Lessons in Looking: Rethinking Watson and the Shark and Lessons in Looking: Rethinking Manet and Degas, both published in The Montreal Review.


Selected Bibliography

Arnheim, Rudolf. Art and Visual Perception. Univ. of California Press, Berkeley.1974.

Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life, Penguin Books, NY, 2010.

Gilbert, Jack. “The Abnormal is Not Courage,” in Mark Strand, ed., The Contemporary American Poets: American Poetry Since 1940. Cleveland. World Publishing Company. 1969.

Grammont, Claudine. “The Object as Actor,” in Matisse in the Studio, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts. 2017.

Hunter, Sam. Rivers. New York: Harry N. Abrams for Meridian Books. 1971.

Ó Tuama, Pádraig. Poetry Unbound. Norton, New York. 2023.

Robertson, Jean and Deborah Hutton et al., The History of Art: A Global View. Thames & Hudson, 2023.

Wierich, Jochen. Grand Themes: Emmanuel Leutze, ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware,‘ and American
History Painting. The Pennsylvania State Press, University Park, Pa. 2012


Craig McDaniel (Professor Emeritus, Indiana University, Herron School of Art + Design | IUPUI) is co-author of Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art After 1980 (Oxford University Press). His essays, art, and experimental writing have appeared in the New England Review, the Gettysburg Review, the Michigan Quarterly Review, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. New poems are forthcoming from the Red Noise Collective.




The Montréal Review, August 2023


The Montréal Review, October 2023



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