Artistic License

Washington Crossing the Delaware (detail), by Emanuel Leutze, 1851

Christmas night of 1776 seemed like a good idea when General George Washington was picking a date for the attack on Trenton, New Jersey.  It had the element of surprise, of course — the Hessian mercenaries who held the town wouldn’t be expecting the Americans to attack that night.  Christmas is a time, as we all know, for quiet reflection, gift giving, and drinking.  Washington’s strategy was pretty good, if you overlook the challenges of getting horses, cannons and 2,400 soldiers across the 800-foot wide Delaware River in the middle of a winter night.

What Washington hadn’t anticipated was the storm that approached during Christmas Day, a storm that reached its peak while many of the boats were still in the middle of the river.  It was a classic nor’easter:  high wind, heavy rain, bitter cold.  The Delaware filled with sheets of ice.  The storm did help Washington in one respect — the howling winds covered the noise of the crossing.

The boats, by the way, were flat-bottomed and had high sides; they were ordinarily used to transport pig iron from the Durham Iron Works near Philadelphia.  They were capable of carrying as many as forty men, all of whom would have to stand, since there were no seats in the boats.

That last fact (and several others) is contrary to the romantic version of the event depicted in the famous painting by Emanuel Leutze.  The original work, which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, is certainly spectacular.  For one thing, it’s huge, measuring 12½ feet by 21¼ feet, much larger than the big-screen TV in your local sports bar.  And its imagery is inspiring.

Leutze painted it in Germany some seventy-five years after the historical event, though, so some inaccuracies crept into his work.  Take that boat in the painting, for instance.  It looks like a bunch of guys have crowded into a dinghy for a boat parade.  Wouldn’t someone have had the good sense to say, “For God’s sake, General, sit down!”?

Washington was 44 years old at the time of the crossing, considerably younger than the man in Leutze’s painting appears to be.  But the artist probably used as his “models” the portraits of Washington by other painters that by 1851 had become the more-or-less official likenesses.  Leutze wanted people to look at his painting and immediately say, “Ah, that’s George Washington,” and not, “Who’s the idiot standing up in the rowboat?”

It’s not a particularly accurate image of the Delaware River either, but that’s because Leutze was working in Germany and used the Rhine as his model.  Also, it’s historically unlikely that the so-called Betsy Ross Flag shown in the painting would have been unfurled on the boat that night in 1776.

Oh, yeah — that night.  Does Leutze’s painting look like night to you?  I tend to associate night with darkness.  Especially when a massive storm is blotting out the sky.

In spite of those quibbles over the artistic license he took, Leutze’s painting Washington Crossing the Delaware is widely admired, and rightly so.  Washington’s actual crossing was successful, too:  Trenton was taken the following morning.  Amazingly, there were only two American fatalities, both of whom had frozen to death during the night.

So if this Christmas doesn’t quite live up to your hopes for it, just think of what it must have been like to be on that river in 1776, and remind yourself that things could be a lot worse.  Have a warm, dry Christmas.

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