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George Washington Crossing the Delaware

Artist: Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze
Created: 1851
Dimensions (cm): 647.7 x 378.5
Format: Oil on canvas
Location: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA



Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware, one of the most recognizable images of Americana, depicts George Washington and his troops fording the Delaware River to stage a surprise attack on numerically superior British troops camped in Trenton, New Jersey. That battle was the psychological turning point of the Revolutionary War, and at the time was the symbol of American innovation, resourcefulness, and pluck triumphing over Britain's superior numbers, equipment, and above all, their traditional style of formal warfare. Images from the battle had been painted before, but Leutze was the first to depict the actual crossing of the river.

In terms of construction, this painting is Leutze's masterpiece; it combines restrained color with powerful but spare sweeps into space, and a dynamic arrangement of its active elements. Washington, with his famous pose, personifies determination and courage. The light part of the sky centers around his figure, creating a sort of halo above. The diagonal angle of the furled flag is repeated by the left-front oar—this line draws the eye up, past Washington's ship to the line of other boats following behind. The figure of Washington counterbalances the thrust of the flag, pushing slightly left and forward. With the American flag prominently displayed, and Washington's presence, the boat symbolizes the American Revolution, sailing to confront the British and reach its final destination: independence.

Although Leutze was German, living in the mid-19th century, this painting resonated with him too, as well as his contemporaries. The forces Washington fought at Trenton were made up primarily of Hessian mercenaries; the Electorate of Hesse was one of the most oppressive and autocratical German states at the time Leutze painted Washington Crossing the Delaware. The painting, thus, obliquely refers to the struggle of liberal forces in Hesse to modernize their state and achieve a greater degree of democracy and personal freedom. Whether Leutze's intended audience was German or American though, remains unknown.

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