Against All Odds: The Courage of Washington Crossing the Delaware

Reaching Within: What traditional art offers the heart
By Eric Bess
Eric Bess
Eric Bess
Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).
July 25, 2021 Updated: July 25, 2021

We are often encouraged to realize our dreams over the course of our lives. Some want to start a business; some want to be mathematicians or scientists; and others want to play music, act, or create. Quite often, however, we are bombarded with difficulties when we try to reach our goals.

I recently came across a painting I often went to visit when I lived in New York: “Washington Crossing the Delaware” by Emanuel Leutze. Leutze’s depiction makes me consider the importance of freedom and how vital courage is when we wish to achieve something great.

An Inspired Leutze

Despite being considered an American painter, Leutze was actually born in Germany. He spent his youth in Philadelphia with his father until the age of 25, at which point he returned to Germany to enroll in the Royal Art Academy in Düsseldorf. By the time he had returned to Germany, he had already grown to appreciate the ideals of freedom that so many Americans held dear.

Back in Germany, governmental restrictions on liberty caused Leutze to “compose an enormous homage to George Washington and the exemplary spirit that declared independence for the British colonies in North America,” according to the book “Washington Crossing the Delaware: Restoring An American Masterpiece,” published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Leutze decided that he would portray, as accurately as possible, a historical rendition of Washington crossing the Delaware River. It was Christmas night when Washington attacked the Hessians (German soldiers supported by the British). Before this point, the American troops were being beaten badly. The Christmas night of 1776, however, would prove to be a turning point in the war.

Inspired by this story, Leutze employed his American friends to be models for the group of men depicted in his painting, including Col. James Monroe, who is holding the flag, and Gen. Nathanael Greene, who is depicted in the foreground as leaning over the boat’s edge. “The others represent the loyal ranks of local fishermen and militiamen cast into service for the dangerous trek across the river,” the website states.

Leutze went so far as to acquire replicas of the uniforms from the U.S. Patent Office to get as accurate a depiction as possible. He also used Jean-Antoine Houdon’s sculpted bust of Washington as a reference for his painting.

George Washington
“George Washington,” circa 1786 by Jean-Antoine Houdon. Plaster. National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C. (Public Domain)

Leutze painted two versions of “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” with the first being damaged by a fire in 1850 and then destroyed during World War II. The second is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

“The painting’s popularity—due to its scale, theme and iconic subject matter—ensured that the image was emblazoned on the minds of mid-19th-century Americans,” the museum states. And it continues to endure as a “staple of the American art historical canon, and as one of the most recognizable images to the museum-going public.”

‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’

In the painting, Leutze depicts Washington as the focal point, with his sword sheathed but revealed. The general stands courageously at the front of the boat, which is traveling to the left, and so he faces the danger ahead of him.

Three men at the very front of the boat and two men toward the back help navigate the boat through the icy waters. Some of the other men toward the rear of the boat seem worried, which reveals the danger of the event and contrasts with the calm confidence of Washington.

Washington Crossing the Delaware
Detail of “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” 1851, by Emanuel Leutze. Oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Public Domain)

Behind Washington is Monroe, who holds the flag, and Greene, who leans over the boat’s edge. They both stare intently toward their objective.

Washington Crossing the Delaware
Detail of “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” 1851, by Emanuel Leutze. Oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Public Domain)

There are several boats in the distance that accompany Washington’s in the icy waters of the Delaware. The cool colors—blue, green, purple—add to the sense of cold that Leutze depicts.

Washington crosses the Delaware at night. Leutze chose to depict the planet Venus, the morning star, at the top left of the composition, which suggests the coming dawn.

According to the Metropolitan Museum, “The star plays an important role in the composition, both in setting the time of the event during the hours just before dawn and as a symbol of the dawn of hope during the darkest days of the American Revolution.”

Against All Odds

Initially, the American troops were losing the Revolutionary War. The British were proving both strong and efficient. Because of these difficulties, the new nation could have redacted its Declaration of Independence and given up, but the emerging nation didn’t, and herein lies the risk and reward of freedom and success.

Freedom and success are cherished because they don’t come easily; they require sacrifice and the ability to navigate hardship and difficulties with the type of cool confidence and courage exemplified by Washington.

Washington faces the difficulty ahead; he doesn’t run from it or worry about it. He has a goal—a goal of freedom—and the significance of accomplishing his goal seems to fuel his courage.

Interestingly enough, in a nation founded on individual freedom, Washington can’t accomplish this task alone. He needs the help of all of the others depicted. They all must secure their individual freedom by working together.

All of the soldiers must confront the dangers ahead and the icy waters that are right in front of them. Both the journey and the destination of this night are riddled with danger, difficulty, and complications. Even the darkness on the right side of the sky suggests the soldiers’ past challenges.

What’s important, however, is the end goal of freedom, which is represented by the morning star. Without letting the difficulties stop them from moving forward, the soldiers move toward the morning star; the soldiers move toward success and freedom.

As we move throughout our lives and try to accomplish our goals, this painting and the event it captures can serve as a reminder of the courageous state of mind often required to achieve our everyday goals and the deep appreciation we should have for freedom itself.

The traditional arts often contain spiritual representations and symbols the meanings of which can be lost to our modern minds. In our series “Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart,” we interpret visual arts in ways that may be morally insightful for us today. We do not assume to provide absolute answers to questions generations have wrestled with, but hope that our questions will inspire a reflective journey toward our becoming more authentic, compassionate, and courageous human beings.

Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).

Eric Bess
Eric Bess
Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).