Thursday, January 6, 2011

Washington Crossing the Delaware

It was, of course, the greatest comeback in American history. Had it not succeeded, there might not be much if any American history to study.  On Christmas night in 1776, after a string of losses and with much of his army demoralized and ready to opt out as their terms of service expired, George Washington mounted a bold offensive by crossing the Delaware River at night and surprising the Hessian mercenaries fighting for England at dawn.

It took nearly 75 years for an artist to adequately capture this historical moment. Emmanuel Leutze, a German immigrant who grew up in Philadelphia but was working in Dusseldorf, Germany in the late  1840s, wanted to create an image that would inspire democratic revolutionaries throughout Europe. He thought the example of American independence would do the trick, and chose Washington’s surprise victory as the subject.

No one can dispute the magnificence and power of the massive painting he created (now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and measuring a full 149” x 255”!!!), and it was a huge success, at least in the United States. The painting was copied by a number of engravers and made widely available through print media.

Where it somehow found its way into the hands of an unknown folk artist from New England in the 1880s. The result was an inspired embroidery in the Fenimore Art Museum collection based on the Leutze painting. Though much smaller than the original (our work is about 32” x 42”, it captures the gravity of the moment in needlework and silk, and brings the pride in America’s past (and this young woman’s dexterity with the needle) into the parlor of an average American home. The “life” of an image like Leutze’s may be fascinating, but it is considerably enriched when it merges with the artistic expressions of the people it celebrates.

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