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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.

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