"Washington Crossing the Delaware"

painted by Emmanuel Leutz in 1851

Lesson Designed by Grant R. Miller

Emmanuel Leutz's famous painting, "Washington Crossing the Delaware," painted in 1851.


1. Analyze the Painting

First, describe what is happening in this painting. (You can enter your answer in the bottom right-hand corner of this page.)

2. Your Task

For this exercise, you will analyze different sources to determine this painting's importance. At the end of this exercise, you will answer two central questions:

a. Why is the painting considered an American icon ?

b. Does the painting tell us more about an event or the artist who painted it?

3. Hear What the Coaches Think

Click on the coaches below to hear their thoughts about how these two questions will help you analyze the sources on the following pages.

This map shows where Washington's troops crossed the Delaware River and marched to Trenton.

The Event: Washington Crossing the Delaware

excerpts from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part2/2h48.html

The painting commemorates a somewhat minor event that nevertheless had tremendous morale value for the Continental army. In December 1776, after Washington's troops were routed in New York and New Jersey, forcing them to flee into Pennsylvania, a British victory seemed certain. Convinced that the colonials would pose no threat, Sir William Howe, commander of the British forces, settled into New York for the winter.

In a bold move on that bitterly cold Christmas Eve, Washington had his men ferried across the Delaware River, made dangerous and barely navigable by huge chunks of ice. Once on the other side, in Trenton, New Jersey, the patriot army surprised Britain's Hessian mercenaries, capturing 900 of them.

"Washington Crossing the Delaware" by Emmanuel Leutz (1851)

The Importance of Leutz's Painting

excerpts from: http://www.americanrevolution.org/delxone.html

With the possible exceptions of DaVincis' Mona Lisa and Last Supper, this is perhaps the most universally recognized image in the entire history of art.

Painted in Dusseldorf, Germany around 1851, the artist had lived in America as a boy, and after going back to Germany, had returned to America many times (years later he would emigrate here). While here, he visited the Smithsonian and examined Washington's uniform and sword, and carefully studied paintings and sculpture of the Great General which were done in Washington's lifetime. Yet, despite this intensive research into historical accuracies, Leutze then let his artistic license run wild. Perhaps that is why this painting is usually classified in the "Romantic" school of art.

Portrait of Emmanuel Leutz by William Morris Hunt (1845)

Emmanuel Leutz (1816-1868)

excerpts below from http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/patc/georgewashington/

Carrie Barrett, curator of American art at the Metropolitan Museum, notes that most people see the painting (Washington Crossing the Delaware) more as a historical document of the American Revolution than a work of art.               

"The subject matter is so overwhelming (that) it doesn't become discussed as a painting so much," Barrett says. "It's a shame. People should know the elements of its creation."

The iconic Washington Crossing wasn't even painted in the United States, but in Germany. In the years following the German Revolution of 1848, Leutze and his artist friends set up shop in a cavernous Dusseldorf studio, entranced by the spirit of uprising . Barbara Groseclose, Leutze's biographer, says that he was drawn to history painting as a way to convey large abstract ideas.

At the moment of creation, the German revolution had all but failed, and like the soldiers surrounding Washington in the painting, the idealistic artist must have felt the sting of a losing battle, mixed with a surge of hope that victory might lie just across the river.

"The promise of democracy was lost just a year into these revolutions. But if you had someone like George Washington at the helm, all could be saved," Barrett says, looking back on Leutze's inspiration.

The National Colors

excerpt from Kids Discover. (2000). American Revolution. Boulder, CO: Kids Discover.

The first American flag was the "Grand Union" flag, combining the British Union Jack and 13 stripes for each state. On June 14, 1777, Congress resolved the flag of the United States would be 13 stars on a blue field and 13 red and white stripes. No definite arrangement of the stars was determined, so various designs were used at first: one had stars in a circle, others had the stars arranged as seen below.

Grand Union flag (left) and a later version (right) with stars replacing the Union Jack

Weather Conditions

Christmas, 6 p.m. - It is fearfully cold and raw and a snow-storm [is] setting in. The wind is northeast and beats in the faces of the men. It will be a terrible night for the soldiers who have no shoes. Some of them have tied old rags around their feet; others are barefoot, but I have not heard a complaint. They are ready to suffer any hardship and die rather than give up their liberty.

Diary entry from officer on Washington's staff


Dec. 26, 3 a.m. - I never have seen Washington so determined as he is now. He stands on the bank of the river, wrapped in his cloak, superintending the landing of his troops. He is calm and collected, but very determined . The storm is changing to sleet, and cuts like a knife....We are ready to mount our horses.

Diary entry from officer on Washington's staff


As we had been in the storm all night we were not only wet through and through ourselves, but our guns and powders were wet also, so that I did not believe that one would go off, and I saw none fired by our party. When we were all ready we advanced and, although there was not more than one bayonet to five men, orders were given to 'Charge bayonets and rush on!' and rush on we did.

Private Greenwood, age 16

Emmanuel Leutz\'s 1851 painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware

Painting by Peter Fiore for Lynn Cheney's book, When Washington Crossed the Delaware

Continential Soldiers

[They are] nothing but a lot of farmers...If they come, all they can hope for is a good retreat.

Colonel Rall, commander of Hessian troops in Trenton


The time of enlistment of Ewing's brigade [of colonists]...all expire the first of Jan. next and ...the officers and men and Gen. Ewing himself have declared that they will serve no longer. Of the new England troops who came with General Washington it is generally believed from their declaration that they will not serve longer than the term of their enlistment , which expires also the First of Jan'y next...

Samuel Brown, informer to the British


You may as well attempt to stop the Winds from blowing, or the Sun in its diurnal , as the Regiments from going [home] when their term is expired.

Washington to Robert Morris


Something must be attempted before the sixty days expire...I will not disguise my own sentiments , that our cause is desperate and hopeless if we do not take the opportunity of the collection of troops at present, to strike some stroke. Our affairs are hastening fast to ruin if we do not retrieve them by some happy event. Delay with us is equal to total defeat.

Colonel Joseph Reed to General Washington

Lithograph of Hessian troops surrendering to Washington\'s army


It is a glorious victory. It will rejoice the hearts of our friends everywhere and give new life to our hitherto waning fortunes. Washington has baffled the enemy...He has pounced upon the Hessians like an eagle upon a hen.

Officer on Washington's staff


I have the pleasure of Congratulating you upon the success of an enterprise which I had formed against a Detachment of the Enemy lying in Trenton, and which was executed yesterday Morning. In justice to the Officers and Men, I must add, that their behavior upon this Occasion, reflects the highest honor upon them. The difficulty of passing the River in a very severe Night, and their march thro' a violent Storm of Snow and Hail, did not in the least abate their Ardor . But when they came to the Charge, each seemed to vie with the other in pressing forward...

Washington to the President of Congress


I have the pleasure to acquaint you that the Continental Regiments from the Eastern Governments, have, to a Man, agreed to stay Six weeks beyond their Term of enlistment, which was to have expired the last day of this Month....

Washington to the Officer commanding at Morristown