For drama and emotional impact, few paintings can match Washington Crossing the Delaware.
The famous painting by artist Emanuel Leutze depicts George Washington standing heroically in a rowboat as he’s leading his troops across the Delaware River in a surprise attack during the Battle of Trenton in 1776.
Though inspiring and iconic, it turns out the depiction isn’t historically accurate. To wit:
- The actual crossing took place at night, not during the day as shown in the painting.
- According to weather accounts at the time, there was a fierce Nor’easter so it was snowing.
- The forces wouldn’t have crossed in a tipsy rowboats, but in large flat ferries that could accomodate troops, cannons, and horses.
- The ferries were cable guided.
- The place where the troops crossed was only 300 yards wide.
- The ice was in thick sheets on the river, rather than floating ice chunks.
- The stars and stripes flag next to Washington was not adopted until after the Battle of Trenton
The facts need never get in the way of a good story — or a painting — but a Revolutionary War buff wanted to add a realistic depiction to the American consciousness. Thomas R. Suozzi, a former Nassau County executive, commissioned Mort Kunslter to paint an accurate portrayal of the historic event.
Kunstler, who is known for his painstaking research on paintings, spent months studying historical accounts, journals, weather reports, and boats in use at the time of the Revolution.
The result is this painting which premieres today on Washington’s birthday. Kunstler shows Washington aboard a crowded flat ferry, braced against a cannon wheel for support over the rough water. Troops hold torches and lanterns to light the way through the midnight passage. It’s snowing, and the ferry breaks through layers of ice on the river to get to the other side. And, of course, there’s no flag.
Rather than a romanticized version, the latest painting captures the dangerous conditions and Washington’s determined leadership under the worst of circumstances. It’s inspiring, but in a gritty, satisfying sort of way.
This blog entry was based on “Crossing the Delaware, More Accurately” by Corey Kilgannon, NY Times Sunday Feb 19 .
P.S.: The game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” recently asked a question about Leutze’s painting. The question was, “What future U.S. president is depicted holding the flag?” The answer is James Monroe. Would you have known that?
Marna Krajeski is the author of HOUSEHOLD BAGGAGE: The Moving Life of a Military Wife and HOUSEHOLD BAGGAGE HANDLERS: 56 Stories from the Hearts and Lives of Military Wives. She blogs at www.HouseholdBaggage.com and www.GreatGetTogethers.com.
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