by David Hackett Fischer
Excerpt Con't: Page 2
The dominant figures in the painting are two gentlemen of Virginia who stand tall above the rest. One of them is Lieutenant James Monroe, holding a big American flag upright against the storm. The other is Washington in his Continental uniform of buff and blue. He holds a brass telescope and wears a heavy saber, symbolic of a statesman's vision and a soldier's strength. The artist invites us to see each of these soldiers as an individual, but he also reminds us that they are all in the same boat, working desperately together against the wind and current. He has given them a common sense of mission, and in the stormy sky above he has painted a bright prophetic star, shining through a veil of cloud.
Most Americans recognize this image, and many remember its name. It is Washington Crossing the Delaware, painted by Emanuel Leutze in 1850. Today it hangs in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Visitors who are used to seeing it in reproduction are startled by its size, twelve feet high and twenty feet wide.
The painting itself has a history. The artist was a German American immigrant of strong liberal democratic principles, who returned to his native land and strongly supported the Revolutions of 1848. In the midst of that struggle Emanuel Leutze conceived the idea of a painting that would encourage Europe with the example of the American Revolution. His inspiration was a poem by Ferdinand Freiligarth called "Ca Ira," which created the image of a vessel filled with determined men:
"You ask astonished: "What's her name?"
To this question there's but one solution,
And in Austria and Prussia it's the same:
The ship is called: "Revolution!"
In 1848 and 1849, Leutze began to work on the great canvas. An early study survives, complete only for vivid figures of Washington and Monroe and a single soldier. It is painted in strong primary colors, bright with hope and triumph. After he started, the European revolutions failed, but the artist kept working on his project in a different mood. The colors turned somber, and the painting came to center more on struggle than triumph. Leutze recruited American tourists and art students in Europe to serve as models and assistants. Together they finished the painting in 1850.
Just after it was completed, a fire broke out in the artist's studio, and the canvas was damaged in a curious way. The effect of smoke and flame was to mask the central figures of Washington and Monroe in a white haze, while the other men in the boat remained sharp and clear. The ruined painting became the property of an insurance company, which put it on public display. Even in its damaged state it won a gold medal in Berlin and was much celebrated in Europe. It became part of the permanent collection of the Bremen Art Museum. There it stayed until September 5, 1942, when it was destroyed in a bombing raid by the British Royal Air Force, in what some have seen as a final act of retribution for the American Revolution.
Continue to Page 3
*endnotes have been omitted
Copyright © 2004 David Hackett Fischer
(Excerpted from the book Washington's Crossing by David Hackett Fischer; Oxford University Press; February 2004; $35.00US; ISBN 0-19-517034-2)
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