Happy Holidays! While many of us travel for the holidays, George Washington and his troops took quite a trip on Christmas night 1776, crossing the Delaware to surprise the Hessians “in their lair,” if you recall your Schoolhouse Rock.
While the Americans had to work on Christmas and had to take a risky ride across an icy river through sleet and bitter cold, the sneak attack worked and was famously commemorated in this painting by German American artist Emaneul Leutze, one version of which you can see at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
One of the first things you may notice about this painting is that it is really big. I mean really big. I had no idea how big until a visit to the Met in 2015. Look at its size compared to the people in this photo. The Met says it is 144 X 255 inches. I will do the math for you, that’s 12 feet by 21 1/4 feet (again, look at the man in the lower left of the photo below).
While the painting depicts one of the most famous moments in the Revolutionary War, it is an oil painting, not a photograph. Do not look to this work for its historical accuracy, this artwork is all about image. The Met’s audio guide describes the painting as a “monumental registration of a great moment in American historical mythology.” How’s that for a loaded sentence?
The painting certainly adds to the mystique of George Washington, looking quite stalwart and strong during what had to be quite a harrowing crossing (again, sleet and bitter cold during a late night voyage).
The painting first appeared in United States in 1851 and was apparently very popular as there were many copies and engravings made of it. It’s certainly a painting that many people still know.
Along with Washington, did you know that there were some other historic figures on this trip, including another future president? The artist puts James Monroe directly behind Washington, but the then 18-year-old Virginian likely made the crossing in a different boat (again, don’t look for accuracy in this painting).
Other famous folks who made the crossing include future chief justice John Marshall, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton (although they are not believed to be depicted in the painting).
If you’re up for a Christmas outing, you can travel to Washington Crossing Park in Pennsylvania for the annual reenactment, which actually takes place during the day. Apparently thousands of people come to this event. I think I would prefer to visit the crossing sites during warmer weather.
The temperature is always controlled if you want to see the painting at the Met. In the gallery, you can also see the painting’s fancy frame with the gilded eagle at the top. If you’ve ever paid for framing, you can just imagine what a huge golden frame might cost!
There is so much to examine in this famous painting, and it’s definitely worth seeing for yourself, even if it’s just to appreciate its shear size. Although you can’t see it on Christmas, the Met is closed that day.