Washington Crossing The Delaware Burned In Germany
How a German painting of an American victory reminds us of our true cultural heritage
On September 5th 1942 a squadron of 200 British bombers flew over the German city of Bremen. They unleashed their cargo devastating the city. The Kunsthalle Bremen, the city’s art museum, also took a hit.
In the fire that enveloped the building, artwork would be turned to ash. Among the paintings destroyed would be the original “Washington Crossing The Delaware.” The iconic American painting of its war of independence from England would meet its end in Germany— to English bombs ironically.
You may have found yourself reading the last paragraph over again because it didn’t make any sense. The American painting “Washington Crossing The Delaware” is currently hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Actually, the painting hanging there is a copy. The original stayed in its home in Germany, where it was created.
Yes, one of the most American of American paintings was actually created by a German in Germany. This may leave you a bit dumbfounded, but it makes a lot of sense if you dive into the times and history during the painting’s creation.
An examination of this painting and its painter can also remind us of our American heritage that we often forget due to the screaming matches of our current age.
The Artist And His Painting
Emanuel Leutze would immigrate to United States from Germany before his tenth birthday. He studied art under the British painter John Rubens Smith in Philadelphia in 1834. Leutze’s artistic talent would be noticed by wealthy Philadelphians who would sponsor him to be educated further.
Leutze would be sent to Königliche Kunstacademie in Düsseldorf. He’d stay in Europe for nearly 20 years. However, the Germany Leutze found himself in was not the Germany of today. It was a loosely formed confederation of states controlled by two monarchs struggling for power.
In 1848, revolutions across Germany erupted. A mixture of intellectuals, peasants, and students marched in the streets. They demanded a more democratic government along with other reforms. They also wanted the separate states to become unified.
It was in these turbulent times Leutze would begin to paint his most famous work. He had spent his childhood in Philadelphia and never forgot what he encountered in his adopted American home. He’d see so many different people unified together in the cause of freedom — many classes, sizes, and nationalities all become American.
He wanted these things for Germany. So, he created a piece of art reflecting this. The piece would show this unifying concept by memorializing the crossing of the Delaware River by Washington and his troops to catch the British unaware, defeating them at Trenton. The iconic scene in the boat is more than just a celebration of a victory — it’s a celebration of American unity.
“[In] addition to General Washington, Leutze has filled the boat with a variety of ‘types’ of soldiers. Washington and his two officers are distinguished by their blue coats, the trademark attire of a Continental officer.
The remaining nine men appear to be members of the militia. Three men row at the bow of the boat. One is an African American, another wears the checkerboard bonnet of a Scotsman, and the third wears a coonskin cap.
Two farmers, distinguished by their broad-brimmed hats, huddle against the frigid cold in the middle of the boat, while the man at the stern wears the moccasins, pants, and hat of a Native American. This collection of people suggests the all-inclusive nature of the Colonial cause in the American Revolutionary War.”
— Dr. Bryan Zygmont, “Emanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware,” in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015
Success And Failure
“He certainly wasn’t working in a vacuum. In fact, he was hoping to hold the American Revolution up as a shining example of a battle for freedom. When you see the original, which is so large that the figures are almost life-size, you get a real sense of the courage and determination it inspires.”
— David Parrish, professor of art history at Purdue University / referring to Leutze and his painting
Leutze’s painting would be received with great acclaim all over Germany. The Washington Post reports that the painting went on tours to Berlin, Düsseldorf, Cologne, and won many awards. However, the revolution in the German Confederation ended badly and the agitators were forced to leave.
Leutze would be one of the many who left. However, a second painting would be shipped to America and Leutze would travel with it. In 1851 the painting would arrive in New York and according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, within 4 months 50,000 people would pay to see it.
Magazines would write glowing reviews about it, copies would be purchased across the United States, and a copy would make its way to the White House. Leutze’s painting was a national sensation. The government would also commission him to paint “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way”.
America would wrap its arms around the painter and cherish the work he originally hoped would transform Germany. Leutze’s 2nd copy of “Washington Crossing The Delaware” still hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art to this very day.
Sometimes as Americans, we get tunnel vision. We lose sight of what our country truly is and it takes someone foreign born to reset our eyes.
Leutze saw a nation of people of many different origins pulling together in one boat for a single purpose in his adopted home. The news media and talking heads on TV seem to forget this image in the German’s painting. Perhaps they should take a trip to the Met and look deeply at this work of art.
In the 1940’s, boats of another style would land on the sands near Leutze’s homeland carrying Americans of many different shapes and origins. Like in his painting, these men of varied backgrounds would be pulling together for one purpose. They’d free Leutze’s Germany from the tyrants who kept it in chains.
“Washington Crossing The Delaware” is more than just a painting. It’s a reflection of what we as a nation are, were, and can be. The original may have been destroyed, but the image it created is alive and well. It reminds us of the vision Leutze saw with his foreign-born eyes that we as Americans can become blind to.
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