German-born Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze is famous for his American historical and patriotic paintings. ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’ (1850), his most popular painting, became a powerful symbol that represented triumph over adversity.
Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze was born in Gmünd, Württemberg on May 24, 1816, the son of a silversmith. When he was nine years old, his family immigrated to the U.S., first to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, then to Fredericksburg, Virginia. In 1834, he studied portraiture under John Rubens Smith and found nation-wide success with portraits that were published in the National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans. During this time, he painted "An Indian Contemplating the Setting Sun’ which won a prize in a Philadelphia exhibition.
Edward L. Carey took notice of Leutze’s work and introduced him to some influential people, gaining him some substantial commissions. These new patrons sponsored him to travel to Europe to study art, which gave him the unique opportunity to develop his skills. In 1841, on his way to Düsseldorf, he took repose in Amsterdam, staying for a while to take in the masterpieces of the Dutch school. Once he arrived in Germany, he was enrolled at the Düsseldorf Royal Art Academy, a school reputable for its teaching of historical painting and portraiture. He studied under the celebrated painter Lessing who became a lifetime friend.
Leutze travelled to Venice and Rome before getting married and settling in Düsseldorf in 1845. Throughout the next decade, he produced many popular historical works relating to American history including ‘Columbus before the Council of Salamanca’, ‘The First Landing of the Normans in America’, ‘Cromwell and his Daughter’, ‘The Court of Queen Elizabeth’, ‘Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’, ‘The Iconoclast’, and the remarkable ‘Columbus in Chains’ which procured him the gold medal of the Brussels Art Exhibition.
In the spirit of the European revolutionaries, Leutze painted ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’ (1850) which portrayed George Washington, in a boat, as he crossed the icy Delaware River in the War of Independence (December 1776). He hoped the liberal reformers in Germany would extract encouragement and support as demonstrated in his portrayal of the American revolt. This work of art (12 feet high and 21 feet long) became a symbol of patriotism and is one of the world's best-known paintings. Although the painting’s details are not completely accurate to the actual event, Leutze ultimately conveys the message of triumph.
In 1859, Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze returned to the U.S. and opened a studio in New York City. His presence drew the attention of the U.S. Congress who commissioned him to decorate a mural for the stairway in the House of Representatives in Washington. Exploring the Indian Territory in the Rocky Mountains for inspiration helped him to portray ‘Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way’ (1860), also referred to as ‘Westward Ho’ which featured Indian settlement in the Far West. His mastery of the art got him elected to the National Academy in 1860.
Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze passed away of a speculated stroke on July 18, 1868, in Washington D.C., at the age of fifty-two. He had been working on a painting for the Capitol entitled ‘Abolition of Slavery’.