- Historic Sites
“Washington At Monmouth”
Neglected for over half a century, Emanuel Leutze’s huge historical canvas hovered near oblivion. Then this magazine helped to rediscover
June 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 4
Whatever Washington said, he wasted little time on Lee. He recognized the moment as one of crisis, for unless the retreat could be halted, the entire American army might be driven disastrously from the field. Leaving the disconcerted Lee mumbling an incoherent explanation, he galloped to the rear of the retreating columns, rallied their officers, and ordered them to make a firm stand along a hedgerow on the brow of a hill. Meanwhile, American cannon were swung into position to hold off the advancing British cavalry. Despite the terrific heat—it was now f)G degrees in the shade and many men were collapsing from exhaustion and thirst—the Continentals successfully drove off several waves of enemy assault. The day ended in an honorable draw. Honorable, that is, to all except Charles Lee, who was promptly court-martiallcd and relieved of his command.
Leutze’s painting is one of those heroic mid-nineteenth century canvases which one can look at again and again without seeing everything. The painter tried to be meticulously accurate with regard to uniforms, weapons, facial types of the soldiers, and i^mtntits of the leading figures. The coni|X)sition is carefully balanced, but packed with action. In the center, Washington, the sunlight shining on his wrathful face, waves aloft his sword as he starts to rally the troops of the advance corps. Hamilton and a bareheaded Lafayette have ridden up with him and arc reining in their horses. Lcc sits back in the saddle, his crestfallen face in shadow. In the foreground, exhausted riflemen—and a thirsty dog—scoop water from a spring; farther back, on the left, the soldiers raise a cheer for their Commander in Chief, while some of them have already turned to fire on the redcoats, who can be seen outside Monmoulh Court House, in the distance at upper left. On the hilltop, behind the figure of Washington, American artillery gallops into position to stem the retreat, and at far right the regular ranks of Continentals approach the scene to do battle.
Altogether, Washington at Monmouth is a thoroughly rousing historical picture of ;i type that no artist paints today. Its resuscitation has already stirred a great deal of nationwide interest. The University of California, shaking itself like one of the Seven Sleepers, sent enthusiastic news releases about the picture to newspapers and magazines across the country, and the Chancellor announced a special exhibition in honor of Washington’s Birthday. But this issue of AMERICAN HERITAGE marks the first national distribution of the paintings reproduction in full color.
The resurrection of Washington at Monmouth is exciting the same kind of controversy in artistic circles that has churned away for a century over "Washington Crossing the Delaware." A San Francisco critic has attacked it as unhistorical, utterly outmoded in style, and distinctly not part of “our usable past.” A University of California art professor has leaped to Leutze’s defense, arguing that the painting, “although not a historical document for the battle of 1778, is a document for the taste of the time”—that is, Leutze’s time—and “a rich but ordered composition.” For our part, we would add that Washington at Monmouth , while it makes some historical errors (the General’s horse, for instance, was actually white), is true in spirit to the verifiable records of the Battle of Monmouth. Beyond that, it movingly captures a moment in time when George Washington was exercising his truly heroic qualities in the American cause, and we are content to echo Hamilton’s comment on the occasion itself: “I never saw the General to so much advantage.”