|WASHINGTON CROSSING THE DELAWARE, PAINTED IN OIL ON CANVAS, IN AN IMPRESSIVE SCALE, AFTER THE 1851 PAINTING BY EMANUEL LEUTZE; FOUND IN A HOUSE APPROXIMATELY ONE MILE FROM WHERE THE CELEBRATED EVENT TOOK PLACE, PROBABLY PAINTED FOR THE 1876 CENTENNIAL OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE
|Frame Size (H x L):
|56.25" x 75"
|Flag Size (H x L):
|48.75" x 67.5"
|Painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware River on Christmas Eve, to surprise British troops on Christmas Day, 1776. Rendered in oil on canvas, by an expert hand, this image reproduces the 1851 work by German-American artist Emanuel Leutze. Impressive in scale, this example was very likely created in the patriotism surrounding the 1876 centennial of our nation’s independence. At just over 4’ tall, by just over 5.5 feet wide, (framed to 4’ 8” x 6’ 3”,) it represents the largest antique copy that I have ever personally seen, in this medium, of Leutze’s famous view.
Though signed in the lower right, “Luigi Avolia,” the specific identity of this individual, of Italian or Italian-American descent, remains unknown. The only listed artist by this name was a 20th century, Neapolitan, silversmith. Unidentified or not, the talent of the painter is readily evident, as-is the influence of his style. Emulating the movement that followed Leutze, begun in the early 1860’s, and brought to prominence in the 1870’s, the brushwork of the copy is impressionistic. The result is pleasing, colorful, accurate, and especially dynamic—particularly in this scale—while full of the expected character found in the hardened faces and all the scene portrays.
The painting was found in a house of a hoarder in Titusville, New Jersey, just one mile or so from where the celebrated event actually took place. Rolled up, it was improperly stored, crushed flat, under a heap of other material, where it had evidently remained for many years. Acquired by a picker / dealer, the painting was unrolled, hydrated, re-stretched, and lightly restored without cleaning, and framed.
After acquiring it, I elected to have the overpainting removed, a proper cleaning undertaken, and to have the work fully restored. I also selected a more complementary frame. This consists of a beautifully gilded molding, with an early American profile, to which a step-down profile molding, with shadowbox depth, nearly black, with reddish undertones and highlights, was added as a cap.
All-in-all, a terrific, early example of this iconic tribute to Washington’s genius and fortitude.
A Brief History of Leutze’s three copies of Washington Crossing the Delaware: Leutze's original illustration, rendered in oil-on-canvas, captured the image in the German-born painter's mind of what we now know to be a mythical scene. Modern research shows that Washington and his men were on a group of make-shift rafts, assembled for the arduous task of crossing the frozen river on Christmas night, 1776, to surprise the British at Trenton. Historically accurate or not, what Leutze did manage to convey very well was a combination of the small scale of the operation, yet the enormity of the forthcoming victory. He also translated the heroic determination, competence, and charisma that were characteristic of Washington, who had, by this time, achieved legendary stature in the American consciousness.
Enormous in scale, the original work, completed in 1850, was largely destroyed in a fire in Leutze's own studio, then after restoration, became part of the collection at the Kunsthalle in Bremen, Germany. It was finally destroyed completely in a British air raid during WWII, in 1942. The irony of the loss led to a persistent joke that this particular raid was Britain's final retaliation for the American Revolution.
Upon the urging of Parisian-American art dealer Leon Goupil, who maintained a gallery on Broadway in New York and was very successful with American historical works, Leutze painted a second, full-sized replica (12' 5" x 21' 3") shortly after the completion of the first. Colonial and Revolutionary American personalities were enormously popular at the time. Begun in 1850, the painting was placed on exhibition in New York in October of 1851. Despite the fact that it was a one-painting show at the Stuyvesant Institute, more than 50,000 people paid to view it--a simply enormous attendance for the time. It then went on view at the United States Capitol, where it was received with the same enthusiasm.
Goupil brokered the work to Scottish-American businessman Marshall O. Roberts, who lent it for display just once for exhibition at the 1864 Sanitary Commission's Metropolitan Fair in New York City. Held during the Civil War (1861-65), this was a fund-raiser dedicated to field hospitals and the care of wounded soldiers. Attendance over the 18 days was approximately a quarter of a million people, eclipsing all other Sanitary Fair events.
According to the Metropolitan Fair exhibition catalogue (Leutze served on the art committee), three other generals are identified in the image. Behind Washington, holding the flag, is General James Madison, the future president. Below him, hanging over the edge of the boat, Nathaniel Greene, and behind them, holding onto his hat, is Edward Hand. The remainder represent a cross section of the American populous.
Half of the board members of the Sanitary Commission were key members of the Union League Club of New York, of which Leutze was also a member, as was Marshall Roberts. The Union League sponsored the fair, which was orchestrated by Mrs. Jonathan Sturges, the wife of its president, and took place next to the club, adjacent to Union Square. Exhibited along with many other works, Washington's Crossing was the first item in the catalogue, with a two-page write-up, and the gigantic painting was dramatically positioned at the end of the hall. Period photographs of this survive.
In 1870, about 25 members of the Union League, led by John Jay (grandson of the American founding father), helped found the Metropolitan Museum. Roberts passed in 1880 and the painting remained in his estate until 1897, when it was sold at auction and purchased by another Union League member, John Stewart Kennedy, for immediate donation to the Met, where the painting remains today.
A publication produced by the Metropolitan Museum of Art speaks to the popularity of the work:
Mark Twain [remarked] that every grand home along the Mississippi River between St. Louis and Baton Rouge had over its mantel an engraving of "Washington Crossing the Delaware" or "on the wall by the door [a] copy of it done in thunder-and-lightning crewels by one of the young ladies--[a] work of art which would have made Washington hesitate about crossing, if he could have foreseen what advantage was going to be taken of it."
A third version, measuring 40 x 68 inches, once attributed to painter Eastman Johnson, is now correctly identified to Leutze. Privately owned, it was displayed for 35 years in the West Wing reception area of the White House, then sold, and in recent years was displayed in the Minnesota Marine Art Museum. On the 12th of May, 2022, it was again sold by Christie’s in New York for $45,045,000: https://www.christies.com/lot/lot-6368794
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