George Washington Looks Studly

When I think of one iconic American oil painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emmanuel Leutze always come to my mind. I love talking to people about the work because it is so polarizing–some love it but some people absolutely hate it. So here's a rundown of a few of the responses I got from family, friends, an online art forum, and the artistically and historically informed.

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, 1851, oil on canvas.
Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, 1851, oil on canvas.

"It's not even the original!" It's true that the first copy of the painting was destroyed during World War II. But Leutze made more than one version after the original was damaged in a fire. There happens to be a version hanging in the White House and one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art as well.

"Totally made up!" Given the fact that Leutze was painting a scene from 1776 in 1851, certainly there had to be a few artistic licenses made. He didn't have photojournalistic records to refer back to so we will have to cut the artist some slack when it comes to the flag (the Stars and Stripes design didn't exist yet), the ice (the Delaware apparently freezes in sheets of ice, not so much in mini-icebergs), the boat (too small, wrong model), and the light (the crossing was made at night in the rain). 

"Washington is a stud!" I know–that is skirting the line of appropriateness given the stud in question was our first president. But it's a good point! Leutze makes George look positively masterful–his stance indicates power, calm, and forward movement while the other figures in the boat seem frozen in stasis or anxiety. He stands heads above the rest, and behind him the sun is rising. All in all, a very providential depiction of our first founding father.

Whether you love it or hate Washington Crossing the Delaware, it doesn't really matter. The best part about the whole question is that you look at it and you feel something! Better that than feeling nothing at all. And that is what art makes us do–feel something. That's why we work so hard to communicate what we want in our paintings and drawings. Leave a comment here on the Artist Daily art blog and let me know what your response to Washington Crossing the Delaware is!


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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

16 thoughts on “George Washington Looks Studly

  1. It is an emotional portrayal and really draws you into what was the moment when America was on the edge of never being born. The history of this moment is felt in this wonderful work of masterful art. I think the art is masterful and we all should be so skilled to impact the viewer to feel what we are portraying. As for license, study the mystery and the miracle of the fog (further masking the view) that fell on this pitiful, underfed, underclothed, outnumbered and out-armed rag tag group of our forebears who had it all on the line at this very moment in all our history, which allowed their ability to succeed in their mission. Call it what you will, this artist understood this was a divine moment and used his mastery to portray that. If I could do that, I would know that I was accomplished.

  2. I’ve always loved this painting-ancestors from both sides of my family were a part of that battle-thanks for all your insights about how it really went down. The thing is-the painting portrays the spirit of hope that was engendered by the outcome of that battle and Washington as the bold leader that made a way for it. Maybe the details aren’t “accurate,” but the spirit is right on.

  3. I live near Mount Vernon and know a wee bit more than the average person about George Washington. He really was a stud. The rest of the stuff doesn’t matter.

  4. If the purpose of art is to evoke an emotional response then this painting has fulfilled its intended purpose. The “never say die” feeling wells up inside as we visualize this rag tag little group of revolutionaries crossing a seemingly uncross-able river in the dead of winter to surprise the enemy. Closer attention to the details would have added to the realism but not to the emotion.

  5. This painting is a wonderful Fourth of July meditation for all Americans. Okay, so I wish the mini-icebergs had melted away before it was finished. But when i look beyond them, I find a marvelous tableaux that includes not only a strong leader but a cross-section of American society at that time. All together they are men willing to risk everything on the faint hope of a better life. The painting is a vision, backed by daring and courage.

  6. The soft beige of the flag, like a wing, and the positioning of the man behind Washington with a flowing coat suggest the shape of an angel, which would fit with the narrative of the time.

  7. I lived within throwing distance of the Delaware while growing up and Washington’s Crossing State Park. I must have seen this painting at least 3 times a year at the auditorium there. I always wondered why they didn’t sink in that bitty boat as the type they used were HUGE! they had to be, to get horses and supply across that. The Delaware would occasionally freeze but no iceberg type stuff until springtime ice breakup. The tides change all the way up to Trenton, their goal, so there had to have been some effect. And it was actually at Coryell’s Ferry where they crossed..
    THe painting, however, shows the outright struggles they had been thru and those yet to come, but the honest and hard determination to become a country of freedom. Reminds me of some Remington works-and of course, the New Hope School of Art!

  8. Thank you for the description and comments that were made, I probably would not have given it another thought. The composition and colors are good. It portrays a feeling and that is what we ask of most good paintings. The artist took advantage of his artistic license. What more do we ask of a good painting?

  9. I don’t rely on paintings to do the job that cameras perform. Because the painting makes me reflect on the sensations felt by people in the situation portrayed in Leutze’s painting: the cold that the inaccurate ice formations suggest, the urgency and fear felt by the soldiers crammed into the implausably overcrowded boats and striking out at the ice, and (in the motif of the Stars and Stripes that are familiar to viewers if not to those who experienced the fighting), the desire for a country independent of the government they left behind, I like the painting.

    It is not a painting I would paint but it does make me feel and my appreciation of art includes experiencing feelings and thoughts brought to me by the art.

  10. I have always liked the picture. And the old triva question is “What is wrong with Washington crossing the Delaware?” Answer Betsy Ross made the flag after the war. But what a cool painting

  11. The ISSUE is that the painter could not have visited the crossing site at Washington Crossing Park at New Hope, PA.
    The majestic sweep of waterscape as shown in the picture is absolutely fictional.
    The Delaware River is extremely narrow. Washington would have barely had time to stand up before the boat reached the other side.
    They probably walked across on the ice.

  12. I have visited both of the existing paintings many times and am always impressed.
    So much so that at age 85 I used Washington alone in the boat (not all of it) for my final last semester and aced the class. But it had a little twist, there were drones in
    the air, a GPS in his hand, and wearing COMO pants plus combat boots. This is oil on canvas 18×36.

  13. It’s a great picture! Not accurate, but great. They were trying to sneak in at night to pull a fast one on the Hessians–and it worked. They were all as brave and heroic as the picture hints at, but they were all scrunched down and shivering (or, so it must have been).

    Tim Paysen

  14. This is Heroic Art; it doesn’t have to be historically accurate. It’s purpose is to convey attitudes and feelings, and it does that superbly. Anyone who would cross the river standing up like that in a boat would have to be an idiot, and we know G. Washington was not an idiot – he is supposed to be the main figure, so he HAS to be dominant. I’m sure some of the boats were overloaded – maybe not as overloaded as the depiction, but renting or commandeering enough boats to transfer an entire army across the river would be a lot of boats – probably everything available. The drama and intensity of the moment, Christmas Eve, in the rain, as quietly as possible, moving men, horses, wagons, weapons, supplies, and attempting to surprise the British, in the dark…and they did!