February 20, 2012

The New Life of "Washington Crossing The Delaware"

In honor of Presidents' Day and the 280th birthday of America's first Commander in Chief, and to celebrate the new American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I'd like to take a look at a spectacular work of art that depicts a pivotal event in the nation's history.

George Washington is revered in history not only for his sound leadership as the first President of the newly established United States of America, but also for his brave command during the American Revolutionary War.  It is to commemorate one of the most daring and dangerous episodes in this war that the painting in question was created and the result is as majestic and impressive as the man and his legend deserves.

I am talking, of course, about "Washington Crossing the Delaware" as interpreted in gigantic scale by the German/American artist Emanuel Leutze in 1851.  Leutze's portrayal of the General and his men braving the ice choked waters of the Delaware River en route to attacking, and ultimately defeating, the Hessians at Trenton, New Jersey, on Christmas night of 1776, is a testament to the heroics inspired by the future President.  It is a big picture in every way.  Physically, the canvas measures an astounding 149 x 255 inches making the people and the event seem larger than life.  Graphically it is a tour de force where the viewer can almost feel the bitter cold of the ice and wind but is stirred by the fervor and bravery of the warriors.  Never mind the fact that the crossing actually occurred in the dead of night and no soldier could have survived in such a flimsy and overloaded vessel.  And George Washington himself, appearing invincible as he stood in the bow, was probably holding on for dear life as he was tossed about on the choppy, frigid, water!

Despite these discrepancies, the painting is impressive and it was sold to a New York collector for the princely sum of $10,000 shortly after its completion.  At the time, it was trimmed in a massive gilded frame designed by the artist to compliment his work.  After four decades, the painting was auctioned to a new owner who donated it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where it went on display in April of 1897 and remained the Met's property despite being moved around and even lent out to other institutions.  Now here comes the mystery.  Somewhere, somehow in the peregrinations of this painting, it became separated from its ornate custom frame and was displayed in a very uninspired gilded border that was no match for a work of this magnificence.

Fast forward to the 21st Century when the Metropolitan Museum begins a major renovation of its American Wing.  This was the impetus needed to take a good look at the centerpiece of the collection and take the opportunity to bring it back to the grandeur it deserved.  First a thorough cleaning from the conservation department and the icing on the cake - a new frame created to replicate the one lost.  In a collaboration with Manhattan based framer extraordinaire Eli Wilner, the Met and Wilner's master carver studied old installation photos that showed the painting in its original frame and recreated it exactly.  The result is magnificent.  1,400 lbs of wood in 9 sections laminated together and covered with 12,500 sheets of gold, have been carved with shields, stars, acanthus leaves and berries and crowned with an eagle holding arrows, flags and a ribbon with the inscription "First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of countrymen". 

The Met re-opened its New American Wing in January of 2012 to much acclaim.  One of the stars of the show is the popular favorite "Washington Crossing the Delaware" once again resplendent and dominating Gallery 760 where it hangs.  Never mind that the sun was not shining nor the icebergs flowing on the Delaware River that cold night in 1776 - no one expected General Washington to succeed with this campaign either!  Emanuel Leutze's glorious rendition continues to inspire!

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