Closer Readings Commentary

Emanuel Leutze’s Symbolic Scene of Washington Crossing the Delaware

Washington Crossing the Delaware
Photo caption

Emanuel Leutze (American: 1816–1868), Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851, Oil on canvas.

Brrrrr!!! What a way to spend the holidays! On Christmas Night, December 25, 1776, George Washington led Continental Army soldiers across the Delaware River to attack Britain’s Hessian army at Trenton, New Jersey. This successful surprise attack provided a much-needed victory for Britain’s former colonies as they struggled for freedom.

At the mention of this event, most Americans picture a heroic George Washington standing in a small boat. That’s how Emanuel Leutze pictured it in his huge painting that has been reproduced in history textbooks and hung in American classrooms for the past 150 years.

But there are a lot of surprises about this most famous icon of American history. First, a German artist painted it in response to German politics. Emanuel Leutze, born in Germany in 1816, moved to America as a child but returned to Germany to study art in 1840. With a strong belief in liberal democracy, he painted this American Revolution scene to inspire German reformers. When his first painting of Washington’s crossing became popular in Europe, he shipped this second huge version to the United States in 1851. It became an instant success with more than fifty thousand people coming to see it. Today it is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

But is it accurate? Is this really how it happened? Yes, and no. Leutze got the spirit of ’76 right and that was his main purpose. He created an inspirational vision of brave and upright men from a variety of backgrounds standing up and fighting together against incredible odds for the common cause of liberty. However, the details of the scene are more symbolic than accurate. Leutze exercised his artistic license to create a powerful composition.

The boat in the painting is much smaller than the Durham boats that Washington had requested to ferry his army back and forth across the Delaware. If he had stood in a boat this small, he probably would have tipped it over. Leutze made it small to emphasize the almost life-size figures. The boat represents the revolutionary cause, carrying and uniting the men towards a common goal of liberty.

The Hero

George Washington, the commanding general, seems much older in this painting than others of him that were painted from life not too long after the Revolution. (See Charles Wilson Peale’s portrait of Washington at Princeton.) Wearing his Continental Army uniform, tricorne hat, boots, and a red-lined cape, he holds a brass telescope symbolizing his visionary leadership. His prominent saber suggests that he is a powerful warrior. Standing on one leg, he is one of the few objects in the painting that is not moving. He looks forward to the New Jersey shore and the upcoming battle. 

The Men

Twelve diverse, determined soldiers, including Washington, crowd the main boat. They wear clothing distinctive to their region. In addition to Washington, a figure who may represent Lieutenant James Monroe, another Virginian and future president, holds the flag. Western frontiersmen guide the boat, a man wearing a Scotch hat rows. Is he a recent immigrant? An African American man rows on the far side. He could represent one of the Massachusetts seamen who played an important role in ferrying the army back and forth across the river. Leutze was an ardent abolitionist. See the EDSITEment lesson plan African American Communities in the North Before the Civil War.

A hatless figure in a man’s red shirt is rowing. There were women on Washington’s ration list and some historians guess that this figure could be a woman. Farmers huddle in blankets and broad-brimmed hats. One holds a double-barreled rifle. By this time in the war, many of Washington’s army no longer had shoes and wrapped their bleeding, freezing feet in rags. Leutze dressed models in colonial clothing to pose for his painting.

The Flag

The flapping flag in the painting features a circle of stars on a blue field and red and white stripes. It represents the unity of the states, but was not designed until 1777, after this event. On the night of the crossing each unit carried their own distinctive flag or that of their state. See the EDSITEment lesson plan Stars and Stripes Forever: Flag Facts for Flag Day.

The River

As the temperature dropped on Christmas Day, ice was forming in the swollen Delaware River. Washington decided to cross the river in a blinding snow storm because he feared that once the river froze, the Hessians would easily move their heavy artillery, horses, and army over the ice to attack Philadelphia. Leutze modeled the river in the painting after Germany’s Rhine River. Ice on this section of the Delaware River usually forms in large flat sheets, not chunks pictured in the painting. Washington had divided his army into several groups with each to cross the river at a different place, but due to river and weather conditions only Washington’s contingent made it across the river that night. Although a few fell overboard, they all survived the crossing. See the EDSITEment lesson plan What Made George Washington a Good Military Leader?

The Weather

Foul weather played a much more important role in the actual crossing than in Leutze’s painting. A powerful nor’easter pelted snow and sleet, blocking out the sky. The crossing began in late afternoon as the sun sank and continued until about 4 a.m. Darkness covered Washington’s advance to Trenton. The painting is much lighter than the actual event. Leutze’s dawn promises a new day and bright future for the new nation.

The Background

Distant small indistinct light figures of men and horses in the background suggest the size of Washington’s army. 2400 men with horses and cannon crossed the river from Pennsylvania to attack 1500 Hessians in Trenton. The horses and cannon were probably loaded onto flat ferries rather than Durham boats. The rearing horses and disarray of oars suggest the excitement of the moment.

The Battle of Trenton

After this scene, Washington marched his men quickly to Trenton to attack the surprised Hessian army. They captured 900 Hessians and ferried them back across the treacherous river to Pennsylvania. Although no Americans were killed in the battle, two froze to death on the march to battle. This victory greatly boosted the Continental Army’s morale.

The Composition

Leutze arranged the figures in a triangular composition. The main triangle extends from the top of the flag to the boat’s bow and back to its stern. Other triangles are in the figure groupings. One extends from Washington’s head to the bow and back to the extended arms of the red-shirted figure.

The figures look to the left of the painting showing the progressive movement towards their objective. The figures are clad in dull, muted colors except for the accents of bright red. Leutze unifies the composition by overlapping figures and repeating various shades of blue throughout the painting. Light and shadows show the depth and form of the figures. Students may explore this composition in depth on the Metropolitan Museum’s #metkids website. See the EDSITEment lesson plans An Introduction to the Relationship Between Composition and Content in the Visual Arts and What’s in a Picture? An Introduction to Subject in the Visual Arts.

The Knockoffs

Hundred of cartoons are based on Leutze’s famous painting. See political cartoons such as suffragist Rosalie Jones Crossing the Delaware and Far Side creator Gary Larson’s Washington Crossing the Street. The painting is even reproduced on the back of the 1999 New Jersey State quarter.

Picturing America Resources

Picturing America Teachers Resource Book

Related Student Interactive

  • New York Metropolitan Museum’s #metkids website presents information about the composition of Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware

Related Resources