How Contemporary Artists Have Used “Washington Crossing the Delaware” to Challenge History
I was a very impressionable preteen when I first saw Emanuel Leutze’s iconic painting Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851). Like so many American kids, I came across it in a history book, as a reproduction illustrating George Washington’s famous 1776 Revolutionary War journey across the Delaware River, and I assumed it represented fact.
Since its unveiling in 1851, Leutze’s painting has been expansively circulated in textbooks, prints, postcards, and blockbuster museum shows. Perhaps more than any other image, it’s become visual shorthand for American independence, glory, and the archetypal “American hero.” It’s also done a lot of work to bolster Washington’s reputation as the brave, unassailable father figure of the United States.
But like so much popular visual culture, Washington Crossing the Delaware tells only a small fraction of the real story and leaves many communities completely out of the narrative. That distortion hasn’t been lost on contemporary artists, a number of whom have reinterpreted the piece to tell a more inclusive account of American history. In some cases, they’ve also used it to mount scathing takedowns of the traditional—i.e., white male—notion of American heroism.
“It’s an iconic image whose afterlife has been even more powerful than its period reception, conveying to many audiences an illustration of American strength and perseverance against tremendous odds, and locating that significance in a heroic, inspirational leader,” explained Sylvia Yount, curator in charge of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Of course, it’s also been used to critique that notion, especially in terms of who’s included—and not—in that boat.”
Kent Monkman, Resurgence of the People, 2019. Photo by Joseph Hartman. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Leutze’s masterpiece entered the Met’s collection in 1897, and it currently hangs prominently in the museum’s American Wing, where hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of visitors lay eyes on it every year. This past December, the museum also became home to a contemporary send-up of the Leutze painting: Kent Monkman’s Resurgence of the People (2019). Significantly, the Met’s curators placed the new version even more prominently than the original—in the museum’s lofty entryway, the Great Hall.
Monkman’s sprawling painting, which spans 11 by 22 feet, riffs powerfully—corrosively, even—on Washington Crossing the Delaware. It is one of a pair of works on view by Monkman, a Canadian artist of mixed Cree and Irish heritage, that reinterprets the Euro-American tradition of history painting by inserting indigenous people and refugees in the place of conventional white male heroes. In doing so, Monkman questions “history painting as an authoritative language, which people tend to consume uncritically,” explained Randall Griffey, a curator in the Met’s modern and contemporary department who helped organize the commission. “And he sees opportunities there to intervene and insert other narratives.”
Monkman’s composition revolves delightfully around an indigenous, gender-fluid mythological hero of his own creation: Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. In Resurgence of the People, she takes Washington’s place as the fearless leader of a diverse group of refugees heading for American shores. “Looking at the Emmanuel Leutze painting…[Washington] is the hero of that painting, and I wanted Miss Chief to be the hero of my two paintings,” Monkman explained in a video produced by the Met, in which he confronts Leutze’s original painting in person—and in full, fabulous drag as Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. “I wanted to make a monumental painting that really reflected on indigenous perspective to give it that same importance,” he continued.
Jacob Lawrence, Panel 10, 1954, from “Struggle: From the History of the American People,” 1954–55. © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Monkman not only reinvents traditional heroism by highlighting the struggles and triumphs of Native people and migrants—he also reminds us of America’s colonial and genocidal underpinnings, as well as Washington’s role as a colonizer and slaveholder. In Monkman’s words, the commission presented him with an opportunity “to reflect, at least as an indigenous person, what this colonial history has meant to us.”
Monkman isn’t alone in reclaiming the Leutze painting to make space for narratives about minority experience and oppression in America. In 1954, African American artist Jacob Lawrence reinterpreted it as part of his “Struggle: From the History of the American People” series. One panel, depicting bloodied boats and soldiers huddled together for warmth, points to the realities of war, while also subtly recalling the passage of slaves from Africa to America.
In 1975, African American artist Robert Colescott painted what’s perhaps the most scorching retelling of Leutze’s scene, using it to overtly comment on race and the American legacy of slavery. George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook (1975) shows the painting’s namesake—an influential black inventor, scientist, and agricultural leader—in the boat’s heroic position. Surrounding him are figures representing racist stereotypes imposed on the black community by the white majority. We see a cook, a banjo player, a shoe shine, and most disturbingly, an Aunt Jemima figure fellating a soldier. Here, Colescott viciously condemns a range of stereotypes, from the conventional white male hero to derogatory representations of African Americans.
“Ever since I started doing those appropriations, there’s been criticism,” Colescott has said of George Washington Carver and the use of appropriation across his practice. “It’s a lot more than a one-liner. It’s about white perceptions of Black people. It’s the satire that kills the serpent.”
Peter Saul, Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1975. © 2020 Peter Saul and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Farzad Owrang. Courtesy of the New Museum Of Contemporary Art.
Satire is also an essential ingredient in appropriations of Washington Crossing the Delaware by Peter Saul and Kara Walker. In his 1975 painting, Saul shows Washington as a cartoonish, ridiculous leader mounted atop a man-eating horse and oblivious to the utter chaos that surrounds him—bullets fly and eyeballs squirt from heads. The piece reads as farce fused with an incisive anti-war statement. (The work is on view in a major survey of Saul’s work at the New Museum from February 11th to May 31st.)
Kara Walker, The Crossing, 2017. © Kara Walker. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.
Walker’s rendition is more recent. Inspired by the 2017 inauguration of President Donald Trump, her 12-foot-long watercolor reflects the political confusion that surrounded the 2016 presidential election and her own distaste for Trump and his policies. She depicts him leading the boat in a dunce cap, while a man in a blue hat (presumably a Democrat) keels over next to him, puking into the sea.
For Alexis Boylan, an art historian specializing in American visual culture with an emphasis on race and gender, reinterpretations like these help viewers “realize that an image so many see as light and benign, like the Leutze, actually has incredible, problematic reverberations in our culture,” she explained. In this case, artworks like Monkman’s and Walker’s question tropes of white male heroism and national glory embedded in Washington Crossing the Delaware—and make room for narratives that have long been obscured and silenced.
Correction: A previous version included the incorrect title for Jacob Lawrence’s series “Struggle: From the History of the American People.” The text has been updated to reflect this change.