It is not difficult to see why art historian Barbara Groseclose calls it “the emblem of patriotism for Americans”. The enormous canvas depicts perhaps the most decisive moment in the War of Independence, Gen. George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas Eve in 1776. After months of embarrassing failures, Washington ordered thousands of troops to cross the icy waters under cover of darkness. . The next morning, in Trenton, NJ, their surprise attack provided a much-needed morale boost.
In the painting, Washington stands proudly in a boat, seemingly certain of America’s destiny.
But here’s the thing: That multi-city tour the painting went on? It was in Germany – Berlin, Düsseldorf and Cologne, to be exact. The artist? a german And the ode to it? Auf Deutsch.
That second version sent abroad? It was sent to the United States.
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In fact, when Emanuel Leutze began his masterpiece, his intention was not to inflame the patriotic passions of Americans, but to inspire his fellow Germans to be as patriotic as he knew Americans to be.
In 1848 a wave of rebellion spread across Europe. It started small with a revolution in Sicily and then grew. In Denmark, protesters demanded a formal constitution. French citizens forced the creation of the Second French Republic. In London, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published “The Communist Manifesto”.
At the time, the German Confederation included dozens of independent states, dominated by two monarchs jostling for control. During the revolutions of 1848, demonstrations of peasants, students and intellectuals arose throughout these states, demanding democratic reforms and promoting pan-Germanism.
It was in this cauldron that Leutze decided to paint Washington. Although German by birth, he spent his formative years in Philadelphia before returning to Düsseldorf for art school. Leutze saw firsthand the power of seemingly disparate groups coming together in the cause of freedom, and he hoped his painting would inspire his countrymen to act like, well, countrymen.
Unfortunately for Leutze, the revolution dissolved faster than he could paint. An attempt at a national assembly, called the Frankfurt Parliament, collapsed under the weight of his intellectualism, and many “Forty-Eighters”, as they became known, were forced to emigrate.
After his German tour, the first version of “Washington Crossing the Delaware” ended up in the Bremen Art Museum. In a strange twist of fate, it was destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II.
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In 1859 Leutze migrated back to the United States, where the response to his Washington painting was great. A magazine review called it “unparalleled the best painting ever executed of an American subject … full of earnestness without exaggeration.” A newspaper said it was “the largest, most majestic and most effective painting ever exhibited in America”.
Mark Twain, ever the satirist, took a different view, calling it a “work of art which Washington would have hesitated to cross, had he known the advantage to be derived from it.”
Tens of thousands of people lined up to see it at exhibitions in New York and Washington. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the painting now resides, within a year almost every home had a print, engraving or sewing version on the mantle.
Leutze divided his time between New York and Washington, where Congress commissioned him to paint another American classic, the massive “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” which still hangs in the Capitol.
Unfortunately for him, national division followed him to his new home; the American Civil War broke out in 1861 just as he was completing his latest patriotic work.
A version of this story was originally published on December 25, 2017.