[Skip to Navigation]
Sign In
Art and Images in Psychiatry
Feb 2012

Washington Crossing the Delaware

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2012;69(2):116-117. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.1854

These are the times that try men's souls . . . he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.—Thomas Paine, The American Crisis, December 23, 17761

[No impression of my youth] was half so momentous as . . .  Washington Crossing the Delaware, in a wondrous flare of projected gaslight and with the effect of a revelation. . . . the profiled national hero's purpose . . . —Henry James, A Small Boy and Others, 19132(p3,488)

In 1851-1852, more than 50 000 people visited the New York exhibit of Emanuel Leutze's great commissioned painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware. More still viewed it when it moved on to Washington, DC, where it was placed in the rotunda of the nation's capitol. It soon was recognized as the epitome of patriotic art in the United States. Northerners viewed it as a symbol of freedom and union while southerners considered it a symbol of liberty and independence. Later during the War Between the States, the Union cause sought to use it to raise money, especially for the antislavery movement because there is an African American man in the boat with George Washington. His presence was no accident; the artist was an abolitionist.2

Emanuel Leutze (1816-1868), German. Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851. Oil on canvas, 149 × 255 in (378.5 × 647.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Gift of John Stewart Kennedy, 1897.© 2012 The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image credit: Art Resource, New York, NY.

Emanuel Leutze (1816-1868), German. Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851. Oil on canvas, 149 × 255 in (378.5 × 647.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Gift of John Stewart Kennedy, 1897.© 2012 The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image credit: Art Resource, New York, NY.

Over the ensuing years, the painting was viewed as a national icon. Fixed in the imagination of Americans in the 19th century, it was reproduced in chromolithographic prints and in needlework pictures. Mark Twain wrote that it was found over the mantel in every grand home from the suburbs of New Orleans to the edge of St Louis along the Mississippi River.2(p1) Its fortunes have waxed and waned in the 20th and 21st centuries. Museum curators raise concerns about its aesthetics while the general populace cherishes it and insists on it continuing to be prominently displayed. Owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art since 1897, it has been restored, and this large painting now serves as the centerpiece for its new American Wing.3 Its frame, newly reconstructed, is crowned by an American eagle with a ribbon beneath it quoting Henry“Light-Horse Harry” Lee in 1799 on George Washington:“first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”3(p33)

Emanuel Leutze (1816-1868), German. Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851. Oil on canvas, 149 × 255 in (378.5 × 647.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Gift of John Stewart Kennedy, 1897.© 2012 The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image credit: Art Resource, New York, NY.

Emanuel Leutze (1816-1868), German. Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851. Oil on canvas, 149 × 255 in (378.5 × 647.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Gift of John Stewart Kennedy, 1897.© 2012 The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image credit: Art Resource, New York, NY.

As patriotic art, the painting reminds the viewer of the struggle and uncertainty that Christmas night in 1776 when Washington and his troops crossed the Delaware. The revolutionary army had suffered one defeat after another. Washington now learned that British commanders planned to cross the Delaware from New Jersey when the ice was strong enough, and it was greatly feared that if the British were not stopped, Philadelphia, the current seat of the revolutionary government, would fall. Washington's action that night was a surprise attack against Britain's Hessian forces camped in Trenton, New Jersey, and led to the victorious Battle of Trenton and subsequent victories that drove the British out of New Jersey. Washington used the Thomas Paine tract (epigraph) The American Crisis to raise morale earlier that week. Now he encouraged the soldiers to exert themselves and“to look forward with Hopes” that some lucky chance will turn in their favor.2(p207)

On Christmas afternoon, the infantry began to march from their camps—8 men abreast. Earlier that morning, they were roused in their camps to prepare for the crossing. Three days' food rations were made ready for each man. Each musket was issued a fresh flint, black powder, and ball. Although the ground was frozen with snow and there were high winds, Washington's goal was to cross the Delaware and attack Trenton before noon the following morning. Field commanders were ordered to lead their men across the river at different places at the same hour. Washington's final plan was for 3 crossings; one was planned 10 miles up river from Trenton, another at Trenton would secure the only exit bridge, and the final crossing would happen below Trenton. Washington's troops, the largest contingent, would lead the attack north of Trenton. Those under Brigadier General James Ewing would cross at Trenton Ferry and hold the bridge across the Assunpink Creek, just south of Trenton, to prevent the enemy's escape by that route. Lieutenant Colonel John Cadwalader and his troops would cross at Dunk's Ferry, near Bristol, Pennsylvania, creating a diversion to the south of the city. Once Trenton was secure, the army would attack the British encampments in Princeton and New Brunswick.

The weather worsened, and by midnight, the mission seemed doomed. Of Washington's forces, 2 of 3 contingents of men were unable to cross the river. However, Washington's main force remained intact and did cross successfully. Ferries were used for the army's horses, artillery, and ammunition wagons. High-sided Durham boats were used for troops; most men crossed standing up. Local watermen from New Jersey and Philadelphia, knowing the river, could navigate in the dark and managed the boats. Fishermen and seamen from New England along with longshoremen, riggers, and carpenters from Philadelphia assisted in the crossing. Washington's crossing distance was about 800 feet. The river, about 90 inches deep, was rapid that night. Ice formed in it floated, breaking apart into cakes and floes. The hardest tasks were dealing with frightened horses and moving 18 pieces of artillery. Yet the men's perseverance accomplished the seemingly impossible. The majority of the army could not swim, but not a man was lost to the river and the artillery arrived in good order. Washington crossed in a boat commanded by Captain William Blackler that was oared by John Russell. So intent was he for success, it was later learned he had written“Victory or Death” on a slip of paper2(p220) that he may have carried with him.

The painting, symbolizing hope and courage in the face of adversity, shows Washington as dawn breaks, leading a long line of boats filled with soldiers, horses, and guns, crossing in the midst of a winter storm. Wearing a buff and blue continental uniform, Washington holds a brass telescope and wears a heavy saber. Lieutenant James Monroe, later a president of the United States, stands beside him, holding an American flag before the storm. A bright star shines above them through a veil of clouds. The river is choked with ice, and Washington's small boat is crowded with 13 men, soldiers from all over America who represent a cross-section of the American colonies. One is an African American; another wears the New England seaman's tarpaulin jacket. Nearby there is a Scottish immigrant wearing a Balmoral bonnet. An androgynous rower, possibly female, is shown wearing a loose red shirt. Western riflemen, dressed in hunting shirts and deerskin leggings, man the bow and stern. Farmers from Pennsylvania and New Jersey, wearing broad-brimmed hats and blanket coats, huddle near them. One man with bandaged head appears ill. Another carries the double-barrel shotgun of a countryman. A soldier in full uniform wears a blue coat with the red facings of Haslet's Delaware regiment. Another man is dressed in a boat cloak and wears the oiled hat of a prosperous merchant; his sleeve reveals the facing of Smallwood's“Silk Stocking” Maryland regiment. Between them is the 13th man, unidentifiable; only his weapon is seen.2

The German-American artist Emanuel Leutze completed the painting in Germany. An immigrant to America, he returned to Germany endued with democratic principles. The idea for the painting came to him at a time when he was in support of the German Revolution of 1848. He hoped that his painting would inspire European revolutionaries with the example of the American Revolution. He planned to depict triumph, but as he worked, the European revolution failed, and in response to that failure, the painting's coloration was made more somber. No longer triumphant, the painting came to represent instead the determination and struggle to overcome oppression—the heroic quest. Henry James (epigraph) wrote that the viewer witnesses Washington's steadfast purpose as he faced what seemed to be insurmountable odds.

The painting is not an exact representation of the time and place that December; the Stars and Stripes was not used until 1777 and the crossing occurred at night.2 It is instead an inspired portrait depicting the high drama of those times when people believed the revolution was near collapse. In the 5 months since independence was declared, there had been many defeats and no major victories. The army had lost 90% of its strength. Another defeat might destroy the cause. Thus, the artist shows us the sense of urgency at a critical time and pivotal moment in American history. He illustrates, too, that for him, the American Revolution was a world event that might encourage other revolutionaries in British colonies, Germany, and other parts of the world.

Psychologically, these events in America proved that people could organize a society and political system based on liberty and freedom and make it work! This was the first time in history a social and political system based on that foundation succeeded.2 Men were not ordered to serve in the army but joined of their own free will. They were not slaves or servants or mercenaries but active and willing participants. An army of free men fought the order and discipline of a modern European army. Washington later wrote,“A people unused to restraint must be led; they will not be drove.”2(p6) Washington was that leader.

Washington Crossing the Delaware, as patriotic art, differs in intent from Soviet socialist realism4,5 and the totalitarian art of the Third Reich,6 Fascist Italy, and the People's Republic of China.4 All of these movements, directed against human freedom, produced identical aesthetics and the same kind of official art. Art was used as weapon of totalitarian ideology4 in each of these countries to shape the minds and bend the imaginations of the oppressed. Happy families under the regime, dutiful mothers, contented workers, and idealized leaders were its subjects. All forms of imaginative modern art were deemed degenerate by them, and artists who produced such works were disciplined and often ostracized.

Instead, in democratic societies, creative and imaginative art is emphasized and free experimentation is encouraged. The US White House's permanent art collection highlights traditional classical American art. Each president may temporarily add to that collection to illustrate those aspects of the American myth that appeal to him (or her) and the party in power. In their choices, some presidents have followed the traditions of the Founding Fathers exemplified by paintings like Washington Crossing the Delaware. Others have selected art for White House loan that emphasizes other aspects of the American myth. For example, a recent president chose art that exemplified the romantic values and heroism of the American West. Our current president has sought to bridge our historic legacy to highlight the diversity of voices of artists in America from the 20th and 21st centuries. Art from museums, galleries, and private collectors by African American, Asian, Hispanic, and female artists are now on view in the White House.7 This is a dramatic departure from the traditional 19th-century still lifes, pastoral scenes, and portraits dominant in the White House's public rooms. Bold and abstract modern works of art were chosen to illustrate that once freedom is assured, freedom of expression must be nourished.

Paine T. The American crisis. Liberty Online. http://libertyonline.hypermall.com/Paine/Crisis/Crisis-TOC.html. Accessed December 21, 2011
Fischer DH. Washington's Crossing. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2004
Barratt CB. Washington Crossing the Delaware and the Metropolitan Museum.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art BulletinFall 2011Google Scholar
Gloomstock I. Totalitarian Art: In the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, Fascist Italy, and the People's Republic of China. New York, NY: Overlook Duckworth; 2011
Harris JC. Andrei Rublev's Old Testament Trinity.  Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011;68(12):119322147840PubMedGoogle ScholarCrossref
Harris JC. The Würgengel.  Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2006;63(10):1066-106717015807PubMedGoogle ScholarCrossref
Sturken M. The new aesthetics of patriotism.  J Vis Cult. 2009;8:168-172Google ScholarCrossref