Not what you thought?
Pictured above is one of the most iconic images in American history, even though it’s historically inaccurate. The painting, titled “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” depicts the start of the Battle of Trenton, a famous battle in the American Revolution. General George Washington is leading the Continental Army across the Delaware River into Trenton, New Jersey, late on the evening of Christmas, 1776. Across the river were a garrison of German soldiers-of-fortune known as Hessians, who were fighting in support of the British. Washington’s army overwhelmed the surprised Hessians, and the colonies were able to recapture Trenton before noon the next day. The battle is widely regarded as one of the key moments in the War of Independence, acting as a rallying point for the outnumbered and otherwise overmatched colonists in their struggle versus the British.
The Americans, of course, won the war. But the British destroyed the painting.
Washington Crossing the Delaware was painted by a German American artist named Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, who completed the depicted version in 1851. It wasn’t the first version, though. Leutze painted the original version in 1848; according to Wikipedia, he wanted to encourage the undercurrent of revolution in Europe (such as the Revolutions of 1848), and believed that depicting this American triumph would further that purpose well. Unfortunately, the original painting was partially destroyed when Leutze’s studio caught on fire, so the artist painted a second copy. That second copy ended up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it remains today. And in 1863, Leutze decided to restore the original version, selling it to the Kunsthalle Bremen, an art museum in Bremen, Germany. Both versions measured in excess of 12 feet tall by 21 feet wide, an immense surface area for an oil-on-canvas creation. (The Mona Lisa, for example, is about one-sixtieth the size.)
The original painting, though, no longer exists. Shortly after the beginnings of World War II, the Knusthalle Bremen was closed to the public and its collections were moved into the building’s basement, in efforts to keep these rare works of art safe. However, Washington Crossing the Delaware was too large to remove from the gallery. On September 5, 1942, firebombs from a British air raid struck the museum, and the priceless work of art was turned into ash. Finally, the British defeated George Washington, although most certainly not in the way they had wished.
Bonus Facts: Washington Crossing the Delaware has been the subject of censorship in American schools many times over, and as recently as 2002. The historical inaccuracies aren’t the problem, either. At issue is General Washington’s pocket watch. The watch fob -- the decorative ribbon at the end of the pocket watch’s chain -- is visible, which normally wouldn’t be a problem. Unfortunately, it’s positioned rather closely to the General’s crotch (here’s a zoomed-in picture of the area), leading some school boards to either edit that part out or omit the painting from history books altogether.
One day in 1880 John Muir set out to explore a glacier in southeastern Alaska, accompanied by Stickeen, the dog belonging to his traveling companion. The day went well, but on their way back to camp they found their way blocked by an immense 50-foot crevasse crossed diagonally by a narrow fin of ice. After long deliberation Muir cut his way down to the fin, straddled it and worked his way perilously across, but Stickeen, who had shown dauntless courage throughout the day, could not be convinced to follow. He sought desperately for some other route, gazing fearfully into the gulf and “moaning and wailing as if in the bitterness of death.” Muir called to him, pretended to march off, and finally ordered him sternly to cross the bridge. Miserably the dog inched down to the farther end and, “lifting his feet with the regularity and slowness of the vibrations of a seconds pendulum,” crept across the abyss and scrambled up to Muir’s side.
And now came a scene! ‘Well done, well done, little boy! Brave boy!’ I cried, trying to catch and caress him; but he would not be caught. Never before or since have I seen anything like so passionate a revulsion from the depths of despair to exultant, triumphant, uncontrollable joy. He flashed and darted hither and thither as if fairly demented, screaming and shouting, swirling round and round in giddy loops and circles like a leaf in a whirlwind, lying down, and rolling over and over, sidewise and heels over head, and pouring forth a tumultuous flood of hysterical cries and sobs and gasping mutterings. When I ran up to him to shake him, fearing he might die of joy, he flashed off two or three hundred yards, his feet in a mist of motion; then, turning suddenly, came back in a wild rush and launched himself at my face, almost knocking me down, all the while screeching and screaming and shouting as if saying, ‘Saved! saved! saved!’ Then away again, dropping suddenly at times with his feet in the air, trembling and fairly sobbing. Such passionate emotion was enough to kill him. Moses’ stately song of triumph after escaping the Egyptians and the Red Sea was nothing to it. Who could have guessed the capacity of the dull, enduring little fellow for all that most stirs this mortal frame? Nobody could have helped crying with him!
Thereafter, Muir wrote, “Stickeen was a changed dog. During the rest of the trip, instead of holding aloof, he always lay by my side, tried to keep me constantly in sight, and would hardly accept a morsel of food, however tempting, from any hand but mine. At night, when all was quiet about the camp-fire, he would come to me and rest his head on my knee with a look of devotion as if I were his god. And often as he caught my eye he seemed to be trying to say, ‘Wasn’t that an awful time we had together on the glacier?’”