“Picking out the historical flaws in Emmanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting, George Washington Crossing the Delaware, has become something of a pastime for the art and history buffs that view the 21-foot-wide painting hanging in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“For one thing, the flag unfurling behind Washington’s head didn’t exist at the time of the crossing, Christmas 1776. The “Stars and Stripes” didn’t replace the Grand Union Flag until six months after the event depicted. What’s more, the boats used by the Continental Army would have been different, the time of day is wrong (it was actually night), and the jagged chunks of ice floating near the boat would have been smoothed over by the flow of the river. And there’s no way Washington could have stood up for the journey without losing his footing and being tossed into the freezing water.
“…The iconic Washington Crossing wasn’t even painted in the United States, but in Germany. In the years following the German Revolution of 1848, Leutze and his artist friends set up shop in a cavernous Dusseldorf studio, entranced by the spirit of uprising.”
“The painting contains an often-discussed historical inaccuracy: the flag borne in the painting is an anachronism.
The flag depicted is the original flag of the United States (the “Stars and Stripes”) of which the design did not exist at the time of Washington’s crossing. The flag’s design was specified in the June 14, 1777 Flag Resolution of the Second Continental Congress, and flew for the first time on September 3, 1777—well after Washington’s crossing in 1776. The historically accurate flag would have been the Grand Union Flag, officially hoisted by Washington himself on January 2, 1776 at Cambridge, Massachusetts, as the standard of the Continental Army and the first national flag.
“Artistic concerns motivated further deviations from historical (and physical) accuracy. For example, the boat (of the wrong model) looks too small to carry all occupants and stay afloat, but this emphasizes the struggle of the rowing soldiers. There are phantom light sources besides the upcoming sun, as can be seen on the face of the front rower and shadows on the water, to add depth. The crossing took place in the dead of night, so there ought to have been no natural light at all, but this would have made for a very different painting. The river is modeled after the Rhine, where ice tends to form in crags as pictured, not in broad sheets as is more common on the Delaware. (However, some believe the Delaware river really was frozen over as depicted because of a small ice age that was occurring at the time.) It was also raining during the crossing. Next, the men did not bring horses across the river in the boats. Finally, Washington’s stance, obviously intended to depict him in a heroic fashion, would have been very hard to maintain in the stormy conditions of the crossing. Debunkers of the painting’s historical accuracy have traditionally said that Washington would have been sitting down; historian David Hackett Fischer has argued, however, that everyone would have been standing up to avoid the icy water in the bottom of the boat (the actual boats used had higher sides).”