Open any American history textbook and you’ll find it there—Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s 1851 painting Washington Crossing the Delaware. George Washington’s steely profile cutting through the wind as he stands in the rowboat, the multicultural crew (including Scotsmen, Native Americans, and even an African-American) pushing away the jagged ice, and the Stars and Stripes flapping proudly in the wind—all very inspirational, and all wholly inaccurate. Now, historical painter Mort Künstler offers his own take on the events of December 25, 1776 with his Washington’s Crossing at McKonkey’s Ferry (shown above). Künstler corrects all of Leutze’s wrongs, but will his historically accurate rendition replace Leutze’s image in the history books and, more importantly, the hearts of Americans young and old? Can we repaint history? Should we?
“I’m not knocking the original: it’s got great impact and Leutze did a heck of a job,” Künstler recently told The New York Times’ Corey Kilgannon. “I give Leutze higher marks for a good painting than for historical accuracy, but why can’t you have both?” Künstler reluctantly took on the commission to paint a historically accurate version of Washington’s army’s Christmas morning sneak attack on the Hessians camped at Trenton, New Jersey. Leutze’s iconic work carries a long shadow. However, after years of researching and painting people and events of the American Civil War, Künstler accepted a new challenge from a different era.
What’s wrong with Leutze’s painting? Nothing, as far as message goes. When Leutze painted it in 1850, he had revolution on his mind, just not the American Revolution. Just like our recent Arab Spring, Europe in 1848 bloomed with uprisings against the established powers in France, Germany, Italy, Austria, and elsewhere. Leutze looked back to the American example as inspiration for that era’s aspirations. The historical particulars simply didn’t matter that much to Leutze, who grew up in America but painted the landmark American painting in his birthplace of Germany. The ice-strewn Rhine served as a model for the Delaware, which freezes in sheets rather than chunks. Leutze loaded the boat like Noah stocked his ark—making sure to have some representative of every demographic of American democracy. The fact that the 13-star American flag didn’t exist until the year after the crossing didn’t matter either. In his heart, Leutze saw that flag leading the way.
What does Künstler’s painting offer? No flag announces the larger cause of the midnight mission. Instead of a cozy rowboat, Künstler paints the historically accurate, but less picturesque, 60-foot-long flatboat guided by a cable. General Washington still leads the way, but he peers through driving snow into the darkness of the night lit only by lanterns and torches (not Leutze’s clear midday). Washington stands, but he braces against a cannon for stability. All of the less romantic elements of Künstler’s version diminish the grandeur of Leutze’s take. In exchange, however, Künstler gives us a truer sense of the event and the American revolutionary effort as a whole. These are ragtag, guerrilla warriors sneaking through the dead of night on Christmas morning to take advantage of an enemy celebrating the holiday. It’s a desperate, almost unfair tactic, but fighting for freedom’s not always pretty. Künstler’s honesty allows us to take an honest look at our origins and recognize that our beginnings look just as lowly and inglorious as many of the beginnings of other countries, including those in their nativity today.
Künstler’s era of choice remains the Civil War. Thanks to photography from the period, we already have an accurate picture of the events of that war, which many call the “Second American Revolution.” Such technology doesn’t help us picture the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers, so mythologizing by imagery comes much more easily. Taking on that task takes courage as much as talent, both of which Künstler has more than enough. Leutze will always be with us, of course, but don’t be surprised if Künstler’s crossing breaks the mythology barrier someday.
[Image: Mort Künstler, Washington’s Crossing at McKonkey’s Ferry. 2011. Copyright Künstler Enterprises Inc. 2011.]
[Many thanks to Mort Künstler for providing the image above.]