“Americans will cross a frozen river to kill you in your sleep on Christmas.” -Unknown
The painting “Washington Crossing the Delaware” (1851) by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze (1816-1868) is one of most iconic images in the American cultural consciousness.
On Christmas night in 1776, the General, faced by a hostile and half-frozen Delaware river, mustered 13 men into a rowboat and crossed anyway. He was on his way to attack Hessian soldiers (German auxiliaries hired by the British to help fight the American Revolutionary War) at Trenton, New Jersey. The painting obviously depicts Washington in a heroic stance, lit by a rising dawn, and headed towards glory. It doesn’t depict what actually happened, though, because the artist didn’t really intend that. Painted 75 years after the event, it couldn’t rely on first-hand sketches (because there weren’t any) or very many first-hand reports (because those were very few).
Washington did cross the Delaware river on Christmas in 1776, but it was almost certainly on a big barge or a Durham boat (a wide cargo vessel designed for taking heavy loads or groups of people across the river). The crossing took place at night, not at dawn. And the American flag depicted in the painting wasn’t designed until the next year, so it wouldn’t have been in the boat. After the crossing Washington did, however, did go on to defeat the Hessians at the Battle of Trenton the next day.
What’s perhaps more interesting, Buzzkillers, is that Leutze didn’t really try to depict the crossing with historical accuracy. Historians and art historians are convinced that Leutze was inspired and emboldened by the nationalist revolutions across Europe in 1848, including in his native Germany. Leutze had returned to Germany to support the revolution there, and saw parallels with the patriotic example of Washington and the American patriots.
This wouldn’t have been the first example of an artist using an event from the past to reflect or support current political movements. Whether Washington Crossing the Delaware has later inspired revolutionaries to throw off the oppressive chains of royal and foreign dominance is impossible to measure, Buzzkillers. But we can hope!
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