On Christmas night, 1776, George Washington led the dwindling forces of the Continental Army in a daring crossing of the ice-choked Delaware River.

Washington Crosses the Delaware, Karl J. Mueller Studios, Purchase, 1997, MVLA.They were en route from Pennsylvania to a successful surprise attack that routed the British and Hessian troops encamped at Trenton, New Jersey. This victory reignited the American revolutionary cause, and the bold action almost immediately became the stuff of legend.

The crossing has become an iconic moment in American history and has inspired numerous artists to envision the event, with images gracing everything from grand canvases to political cartoons to food packaging. We will never know exactly what Washington’s crossing looked like, but each depiction offers a new interpretation of the moment’s challenges, heroism, and leadership.

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A Starting Point 

The Passage of the Delaware, John Archibald Woodside, Sr., after Thomas Sully, 1820–1825, Purchased by the William and Lisa Moore Acquisition Endowment Fund, 2016 [M-5418], MVLA.In 1819, portrait painter Thomas Sully completed The Passage of the Delaware, the earliest known representation of the crossing. Unlike many later artists, Sully depicted the moment before George Washington began his passage: the general sits astride his white horse on the Pennsylvania side of the river, looking over his shoulder to observe his troops as they begin to cross.

Calm and resolute, the central figure of Washington dwarfs the men under his command. In Sully’s composition, Washington remains isolated from the action, leading from above.

A Familiar Icon

The most famous representation of the crossing is German-American artist Emmanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting. More than 165 years after its creation, the painting is one of the best known in the United State. Leutze was a supporter of the 1848 European revolutions, Leutze hoped to inspire new struggles for liberty and democracy. He intended his composition to be allegorical, rather than historically literal.

The clothing of the American soldiers suggests diverse geographic origins, from frontiersmen wearing buckskin breeches to a recent Scottish immigrant in a traditional “Balmoral bonnet” to Pennsylvania farmers in wide-brimmed hats. General George Washington and Lieutenant James Monroe stand above the rest. Leutze places Washington at the center of the action, perched on the bow of the vessel as his men navigate icy waters. The general is immortalized as a heroic leader, but also a democratic one, enduring the perilous crossing alongside his troops.

While truly an iconic piece, the painting is not an accurate reflection of Washington's crossing. The army crossed the Delaware River at night, in large flatboats, during a snowstorm. Leutze also based the river on the Rhine in Germany, where he painted it. He chose the content for emotional and symbolic impact, not historical accuracy. 

Washington Crossing the Delaware

Washington Crossing the Delaware, Emmanuel Leutze, 1851, Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A Modern Reinterpretation

In Mort Kuntsler’s 2011 painting, George Washington stands next to a cannon on a long flat ferry boat, guided by a cable across the river. Committed to capturing factual details, Kunstler emphasizes the fierce challenge of the nor’easter documented on December 25, 1776, even visiting the site to observe the freezing patterns of the river. A torch and a lantern illuminate the nighttime crossing through the wintry conditions, as men use poles to maneuver the boat.

Like Leutze, Kunstler depicts Washington mid-crossing, but this painting shows the boat moving toward the viewer, creating a more dynamic scene than Leutze’s static tableau. The mass of soldiers also departs from the identifiable figures in Leutze’s scene: Kunstler depicts a communal form of heroism, with a fiercely-determined Washington standing among his men, leading them toward an uncertain fate.

Washington’s Crossing at McKonkey’s Ferry, Mort Kunstler

Washington’s Crossing at McKonkey’s Ferry, Mort Kunstler, 2011, Courtesy of Congressman Tom and Helene Suozzi.

 

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