On Christmas-day in seventy-six,
Our ragged troops with bayonets fixed,
For Trenton marched away.
The Delaware see! the boats below!
The light obscured by hail and snow!
But no signs of dismay.
—”Battle of Trenton” by an anonymous 19th-century poet
“Washington Crossing the Delaware” hangs nobly in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. It illustrates General Washington’s voyage in Durham boats crossing the Delaware River to the Battle of Trenton on the night of Christ’s day of birth, Christmas 1776. This surprise attack was a major turning point in the Revolutionary War and became the general’s most celebrated victory.
A photograph of two groups admiring “Washington Crossing the Delaware” welcomes you online to the exhibition “Making The Met, 1870–2020,” the centerpiece of The Met’s 150th-anniversary celebration. The photograph displays the museum’s timeless appeal: The left half of the image in black and white shows a historical photo of a 19th-century or early 20th-century family; the right half in color shows a contemporary group of adults.
In the iconic painting, “Most of the men in this dramatic scene, engage in a turbulent contest, attempting to keep their boats moving forward against ice and wind. The disarray of soldiers serves as a foil for the tall and stalwart General Washington who gazes steadily toward the far shore. His concentration and his will seem to provide the very motivating force for the unlikely enterprise,” the online audio guide explains.
In fact, the courage, confidence, and perseverance that Washington exudes in this painting seems appropriately reflective of The Met’s own birth 150 years ago.
“When the Museum was founded by an intrepid group of New Yorkers in 1870, we had nothing besides our newly minted charter: not one piece of art, and no building to put it in,” states the online post “On Our 150th Anniversary, We Reflect on The Met Community” by the museum president and CEO Daniel H. Weiss and director Max Hollein. “The founders believed that our burgeoning city should have a museum equal to the great collections of Europe. Thanks to their determination and early vision, today we are the world’s largest art museum, spanning five thousand years of art history, and we welcome seven million visitors a year.”
Built with a bold pioneering spirit, The Met has been a bastion of innovation, cultural preservation, and enrichment for 15 decades. For example, Bashford Dean, the founding curator of the Department of Arms and Armor, crafted a stronger, life-saving helmet for the U.S. War Department after a large number of serious head injuries occurred in World War I. More recently, after 9/11, in a touching display, the museum honored the New York City Fire Department and its fallen firefighters by exhibiting their sign-out boards.
“Through it all, art has provided us joy, comfort, and inspiration, and helped us to foster understanding and compassion, enlightening the lives of our local and global audiences even in the most difficult of circumstances,” Weiss and Hollein write.
Beautiful Yet Broken
As one of its many captivating exhibits to celebrate this momentous year, The Met has produced a video series called “Met Stories,” sharing some of its patrons’ unexpected and compelling anecdotes. In episode five, “Catharsis,” retired Marine Lt. Col. and author Michael Zacchea unveils how he has coped with the brutal realities of war that followed him home from the Middle East.
Deployed for the Iraq War in 2004, Zacchea was the first U.S. military adviser to train and lead an Iraqi army battalion into combat.
“I tried to meet them where they were in their own cultural terms,” he says in the four-minute episode. “I built very profound friendships with the Iraqis, and I’m very, very aware that the relationships I built saved my life.”
In the second battle of Fallujah, a rocket-propelled grenade impacted a rock wall right behind him, breaking his right shoulder. He also suffered traumatic brain injury and bled internally for weeks, even after he returned home to New York City.
“Sometimes I couldn’t tell if I was in Iraq or in the United States; that’s post-traumatic stress. I was really messed up. I was really lost and I needed a lot of help,” he says.
In college, one of his majors had been classical civilization, so Zacchea started revisiting the Greek and Roman wings of The Met, seeking solace. There he learned a story about the great ancient Greek warrior Ajax who, upon returning home, killed 600 oxen, mistaking them for Trojans.
“Oh, now this is what I’m experiencing. You interpret all of your inputs as threats, and so you respond neurologically like you’re in combat because that’s what keeps you alive,” he says. “I started coming to The Met to the classical section, and it started rebuilding me spiritually. This is a truth about the human experience of war and war trauma. I could come here and see mirrored in the broken statues, my own body. It’s almost like I’m experiencing catharsis. The sculptures are beautiful, but they’re still broken.”
Like Washington’s own resilient, contagious spirit sailing across the Delaware, The Met has long helped fortify its local, national, and international patrons through the timeless power of art, culture, and wisdom.
Now, brothers of the patriot bands,
Let’s sing deliverance from the hands
Of arbitrary sway.
And as our life is but a span,
Let’s touch the tankard while we can,
In memory of that day.
—“Battle of Trenton” by Anonymous
J.H. White is an arts, culture, and men’s fashion journalist living in New York.