- Historic Sites
Why Washington Stood Up In The Boat
A memoir by a fellow artist who watched the genesis of a favorite American historical painting clarifies
December 1964 | Volume 16, Issue 1
“I suppose there is no artist now living who is so familiar with the ‘getting together’ of [Leutze’s] great picture of ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’ as I am. I had not been in D’fcsseldorf an hour before he showed me a pencil sketch about six by ten inches which he made the night before of this subject. This little sketch if in existence is substantially the same in all its arrangement as the completed picture. The large picture is some twelve by twenty feet. A large canvas for it had been ordered that day. When it came he set to work immediately drawing in the boat and figures with charcoal without a model. All the figures were carefully corrected from models when he came to paint them. But he found great difficulty in finding American types for the heads and, in fact, models for the figures, all the German models being either too small or too closely set in their limbs for his purpose.
“He caught every American that came along and pressed him into his service. Mr. John Groesbeck of Cincinnati, a man six feet and over, called to see me and was taken for one of the figures almost before he had time to ask me how I was getting along. My own arrival and that of my friend were a godsend to him. My friend was a thin, sickly looking man, in fact all his life a half invalid; was seized, a bandage put around his head, a poor wounded fellow but in the boat with the rest—while I was seized and made to do service twice, once for the steersman with the oar in my hand and again for Washington himself.
“I stood two hours without moving for the cloak of the Washington to be painted at a single sitting, so that the folds might be caught as they were first arranged. Clad in Washington’s full uniform [an exact duplicate] … spy glass in one hand and the other on my knee, I stood and was nearly dead when the operation was over. They poured champagne down my throat and I lived through it. …
“The head of Washington in this picture was painted from Houdon’s bust, a profile being represented. It is a very dignified figure, looking intently but calmly through the cold mist to the opposite shore vaguely visible over fields of broken ice.
“One figure in the boat only was painted from any but an American and he was a lall Norwegian, acquainted with ice and accustomed to a boat and could be admitted. A large portion of the great canvas is occupied by the sky. Leutze mixed the colors for it over night and invited Andreas Achenbach and myself to help him cover the canvas the next day, it being necessary, to blend the colors easily, to cover it all over in one day. It was done. Achenbach thought of the star, and painted it, one lone, almost invisible star, the last to fade in the morning light.”