EMANUEL LEUTZE'S ``Washington Crossing the Delaware'' caused a sensation in September 1851 when it was first shown at the American Art-Union in New York. The already famous work, painted in D"usseldorf, was making a tour along the Eastern Seaboard. It was regarded as ``one of the greatest productions of the age'' and a fitting commemoration of ``the grandest event'' in George Washington's military career. As the country drifted toward a tragic civil conflict, the painting may have reminded its viewers of a nobler time when citizens, led by a selfless patriot, acted together in unity. Their efforts brought about a stunning victory - the surprise capture of the Hessian garrison at Trenton the day after Christmas, 1776.
By today's standards the still immensely popular painting seems to have many of the same qualities of a television miniseries: grandiloquence, posturing, ``heroes'' and ``little people,'' and a surfeit of phony emotion. Both the moment and the rendering lack the majesty of better examples of history painting such as Benjamin West's ``The Death of Wolfe,'' or John Trumbull's ``Declaration of Independence,'' already reproduced in this series.
And as with a TV miniseries, ``Washington Crossing the Delaware'' is full of those irritating historical inaccuracies. These include faulty detail about the flag, the uniforms, and the iron-ore boats used for the crossing; the unlikelihood that Washington stood for the crossing; the fact that it was made in darkness under cover of Christmas night, and that the horses and fieldpieces crossed after, not with, the men.
Fortunately for those who wonder what the real General Washington looked and acted like on the field of battle, two painters of real accomplishment served with him there. John Trumbull briefly acted as his aide-de-camp, and Charles Willson Peale served as a militia captain in Washington's victories at Trenton and at Princeton (both of which were achieved by the element of surprise). Both soldier-artists have left portraits of Washington showing him during this war service.
These portraits give viewers a very different impression of the man. The tall, virile, brilliant general they show is a figure colored, of course, by the times and the painters' attitudes toward them.
But since the artists and the painters had soldiered together, the portraits are free of the Leutze grandiloquence, which bespeaks no firsthand experience of battle.
Trumbull and Peale portray a much more humble, a much more accessible Washington. (Leutze's Washington seems to know that he's going to win both the battle and the war.)
Leutze was clearly portraying a moment and a mood, not rendering footnotes. Even so, heroics at the expense of history tend to diminish the painting's impact over time.
Henry James, who saw the painting as a boy and found it a ``marvel,'' wrote about this problem of diminished impact. Seeing the painting later made him reflect on ``the cold cruelty with which time may turn and devour its children.'' As an adult, he found the painting ``lividly dead,'' and what was worse, ``half the substance of one's youth seemed buried with it.''