Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Trenton and Princeton Campaign (Washington’s Crossing)

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze

image of Emanuel Leutze's painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware

“Washington Crossing the Delaware,” Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting, immortalized the Christmas Day 1776 transportation of troops into New Jersey. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

German-American painter Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 work, Washington Crossing the Delaware River, is what many people envision when they think of the historic river trip. But as historian David Hackett Fischer has pointed out, Leutze took tremendous artistic license with factual accuracy, aiming instead at a larger symbolic truth: On board are figures (mainly men but possibly one woman) from different regions, classes, and races risking all in a common cause, led by a charismatic commander.

Painted seventy years after the Revolutionary War, Leutze’s imaginative take on the crossing is perhaps meant to reflect the thirteen original states, working together to make their small boat, symbolizing the United States, stay afloat and move forward. In the mid-1800s, at a time of heightened animosity between northern and southern states, invoking the image of Washington was common practice among those who wished to maintain the union and instill a sense of patriotic pride in the American people.

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