The Patriot Resource - American Revolution

Washington's Crossing
by David Hackett Fischer

Excerpt Con't: Page 3

Emanuel Leutze painted another full-sized copy, and sent it to America in 1851, where it caused a sensation. In New York more than fifty thousand people came to see it, among them the future novelist Henry James, who was then a child of eight. Many years later he remembered that no impression in his youth "was half so momentous as that of the epoch-making masterpiece of Mr. Leutze, which showed us Washington crossing the Delaware, in a wondrous flare of projected gaslight and with the effect of a revelation." Henry James recalled that he "gaped responsive at every item, lost in the marvel of wintry light, of the sharpness of the ice-blocks, the sickness of the sick soldier." Most of all he was inspired by the upright image of Washington, by "the profiled national hero's purpose, as might be said, of standing up , as much as possible, even indeed of doing it almost on one leg, in such difficulties."

The great painting went to the city of Washington and was exhibited in the Rotunda of the National Capitol. Northerners admired it as a symbol of freedom and union; southerners liked it as an image of liberty and independence. When the Civil War began, it was used to raise money for the Union Cause and the antislavery movement. The presence of an African American in the boat was not an accident; the artist was a strong abolitionist.

In 1897, private collector John S. Kennedy bought the painting for the extravagant sum of $16,000, and gave it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There it remained until 1950, when romantic history paintings passed out of fashion among sophisticated New Yorkers. It was sent away to the Dallas Art Museum in Texas, and then to Washington Crossing State Park in Pennsylvania, where it stayed until 1970.

Among the American people the painting never passed out of fashion. Many cherish it as an image of patriotism, and they have reproduced it in icons of wood, metal, ceramics, textiles. It appeared on postage stamps, dinner plates, place mats, key rings, coffee mugs, and tee shirts. By the mid-twentieth century the painting was so familiar that artists quoted its image without explanation, not always in a reverent way. Cartoonists invented angry satires of Nixon Crossing the Delaware, Ronald Reagan Crossing the Caribbean, Feminists Crossing the Rubicon, and Multiculturalists Rocking the Boat.
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*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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