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City Desk

The Origin

by Richard Brookhiser

Washington Crossing the Delaware, the city’s most popular painting, belongs to its largest museum. But for a while, in the last century, we didn’t quite know what to do with it. An old-fashioned behemoth, 21′ x 12′, it seemed plain as a sermon. Perhaps it was kitsch. It got shuffled to Washington Crossing State Park, the site of the event it depicts; then, after it came home, it hung in a narrow gallery where you could not stand back from it properly to view it whole. But one of the benefits of postmodernism is that we may look at paintings Clement Greenberg might have disliked, and the icon has been cleaned, reframed, and rehung in splendor.

The summer and fall of 1776 saw the British beat Washington and his army from New York and Westchester County, and drive them across central New Jersey all the way to Pennsylvania. As winter settled in, the enemy suspended the pursuit, expecting to invest Philadelphia, the rebel capital, when the thaw came. But on Christmas night the republic struck back. Washington led 2,400 troops into New Jersey to attack a forward post in Trenton. We know the crossing of the Delaware was a turning point, and the men in the painting suspect it — but they don’t yet know which way things will turn.

From a distance, the painting looks almost sculptural. The new old-fashioned gilt-wood frame reaches into the room with 3-D ornaments — gleaming medallions in the corners, crossed cannons underneath, and on top an eagle in a spray of lances and bayonets. The canvas within is another collection of objects, big ones: barges packed with men, horses, and artillery until they resemble mountains; gleaming chunks of ice. You don’t need to read the Italian maritime news, however, to know that all these masses, being afloat, are therefore unstable. The boats are moving from land at the right that is hidden to a shoreline on the left, visible, but a long way off. Everything is in mid-stream.

The scene is depicted with the techniques of realism — we see every bead on two Indian-style ammunition pouches, the checks on a Highland bonnet, a pair of seals dangling from Washington’s upraised leg, at crotch level (Father of His Country). But who ever registers so many details at a glance? The scene is more than real; it is visionary. There are enough suggestions of doubt and darkness to remind us that the dreamscape could become a nightmare.

The big barge in the foreground, which stretches almost across the canvas, has twelve men in it. David Hackett Fischer, in Washington’s Crossing, claims there is a 13th, indicated by a gun barrel in the center rear, but he is as elusive as the second gunman at Dealey Plaza. The demeanor of the twelve we can see divides them into discrete groups. Five are tending the boat — three in the bow, one on the port gunwale, one aft. The foremost sailor is shoving at an ice block with a barge pole and jamming it with his foot. He looks as if he will walk the damned boat to Jersey. Another is androgynous, with long auburn hair, which has given rise to the legend that “he” is a woman: feminist projection, probably, though I know of at least one case of a woman who fought in the Revolution dressed as a man. Another sailor is black. This is unquestionably accurate: The 14th Continental Regiment, from Marblehead, Mass., which did much of the ferrying of Washington’s troops over the waters of New York and New Jersey in that grim half year, was filled with peacetime New England sailors, including blacks and Indians. Two officers in dark hats — rather fancy — peer over the sides anxiously: Will we make it? Two towards the aft — one wrapped in a blanket, another injured (he has a bandaged head) — are past looking, sunk in their own thoughts: “Well, here we are,” maybe, or “SNAFU.” Another pair of men — one of them is Lieutenant James Monroe — are grappling with the flag. It is not snapping in the breeze. This flag is heavy, off-balance; they grip their arms around the fabric and struggle to hold it up. The last man is George Washington, who has no one to talk to. He can communicate only by leading. All he can do is do the right thing.

The next boat behind the lead is having its own problems: Horses are rearing, two men appear to be in the water — overboard? pushing off? (pushing off from what?). The sky downstream just left of the center of the painting is brightening — a hopeful sign — but there is a dark patch farther ahead in the upper left corner. Mixed forecast.

When I try to relate this painting to others, I think less of battle tableaux than of meditations — that big Zurbarán crucifixion, or Dalí, even Magritte. I don’t think of them much though. This painting is not religious, or psychological: It is about twelve people, and 2,400 more, trying trying trying to get the job done. I think more of a patriotic icon from America’s next war, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” whose first verse — the only one that everyone knows — is also about an uncompleted action. O say, can you see? Does that banner still wave?

This it seems to me is the answer to declinists among us — or within us, since we are all, at moments, declinists. It has never been a done deal, from day one. The freedom that the men in the boat won and their successors defended is the freedom to pull your oar. If you choose despair, open your veins in the bath quietly, in the old Roman manner; it’s so much more dignified than being a tummler of disaster.

As we know, they got across. But there was still a ten-mile march to Trenton and a battle, then almost five years of warfare and two in arms, then 200-plus of this and that.

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