June 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 4
Neglected for over half a century, Emanuel Leutze’s huge historical canvas hovered near oblivion. Then this magazine helped to rediscover
Last fall, when the December issue of AMERICAN HERITAGE was being prepared for the printer, the Editors looked into the career of Emanuel Leutze, painter of the famous "Washington Crossing the Delaware," which was featured in an article in that issue (“Why Washington Stood Up in the Boat”). One thing that struck us was a statement by Dr. Raymond L. Stehle, writing in the journal Pennsylvania History , that Leutze had painted a companion piece, "Washington Rallying the Troops at Monmouth," equally heroic in conception and scale (about 23 feet by 13 feet), but today almost completely forgotten. According to Dr. Stehle, who is writing a biography of Leutze, the great canvas had been given to the University of California, Berkeley, late in the nineteenth century, but had not been exhibited for over fifty years.
It seemed to us that "Washington at Monmouth," if it was any kind of match for "Washington Crossing the Delaware," was an important part of the American heritage that deserved better treatment. We therefore wrote to officials at the University of California, suggesting that we contribute to the cost of having the painting taken out of storage, hung, and photographed in color—if the picture could be found and if it proved to be in fairly good condition.
Professor Herschel Chipp, curator of the University of California art collections, examined his inventory of stored paintings and found, sure enough, that Leutze’s Washington at Monmouth was on the list. He and his assistants soon discovered the painting itself, resting undisturbed in a long redwood box in a storage room in the basement of the women’s gymnasium.
“We were very apprehensive as we started to unroll it,” Dr. Chipp says, “since it had been stored a very long time, and its condition was extremely uncertain. But as more and more of the picture appeared on the floor we were at first pleased, then astounded at what we saw. The more of it appeared, the more brilliant and dramatic it became.”
Leutze painted " Washington at Monmouth," as he did "Washington Crossing the Delaware," in his studio in Düsseldorf, Germany, whither he had returned after a visit to America in 1851–52. The Monmouth picture was commissioned by David Leavitt, of New York City, where it was put on public display for several months after its arrival from Europe in 1854.⁐⁐ Three years later Leutze made a copy, one-third the size of the original, which now belongs to the Monmouth County Historical Association. Freehold. New Jersey. In 1879 it was purchased by Mrs. Mark Hopkins, widow of the railroad magnate, and in 1882 she presented it to the University of California. There it was shown for a number of vears before being consigned to storage. than its infinitely more famous companion picture. Whereas Washington Crossing the Delaware shows the famous leader in a moment of resolute calm, Washington at Monmouth shows him in full action—in a rare moment, indeed, of great anger. The instant that Leutze tried to catch was supposedly the one time in his life when the Father of His Country was heard to swear in public.
The occasion for this unusual show of feeling was a severe failure on the part of Major General Charles Lee. That mercurial officer, whose Revolutionary career remains something of a puzzle to this day, had been ordered, on June 27, 1778, to harass the British columns under Sir Henry Clinton as they withdrew from Philadelphia to New York. Lee led a large advance force out in the early morning of the twentyeighth, a day that was to be very hot in more ways than one. He made effective contact with the enemy’s rear guard, but then, for reasons never clearly explained, ordered his troops to retreat after only a few shots had been fired. The British counterattacked smartly, and what might have been a triumph for the Americans almost turned into a rout.
It was at this juncture that Washington, who had been leading the main American army up to support Lee, became aware of what was happening. “After marching five miles,” he reported later to Congress, “to my great surprise and mortification, I met the whole advanced corps retreating, and, as I was told, by General Lee’s orders, without having made any opposition, except one fire.…” Soon Washington encountered Lee himself, near Monmouth Court House, now Freehold, New Jersey. The Commander in Chief fiercely demanded an explanation, accompanying his question with an imprecation which was variously reported by various members of his staff. Alexander Hamilton, then Washington’s aide, is said to have described it as “an awful adjuration”; Lafayette, many years later, said that Washington called Lee “a damned poltroon”; and Lee himself, in a complaining letter afterward, spoke of “very singular expressions.” As for General Charles Scott, one of Washington’s young brigadiers, he replied to an inquiry about the incident, “Never have I enjoyed such swearing before or since. Sir, on that memorable day he swore like an angel from heaven!”
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.”