On the night of Christmas, 1776, General George Washington led 2,400 hungry, ramshackle soldiers across the half-frozen Delaware river in the midst of a storm to mount a surprise attack on Hessian forces in Trenton, New Jersey. It marked a crucial turning point in the Revolutionary War, proving that the underfunded, scrappy Continental army was capable of winning—and became the stuff of American legend, in part due to Washington Crossing the Delaware, a monumental painting by German American artist Emanuel Leutze.
Now, Barron’s Penta’s Abby Schultz reports, a version that once hung in the White House is for sale. Auction house Christie’s estimates it will fetch between $15 million and $20 million at a May auction. It’s the first time the artwork has gone up for sale since 1973.
The canvas up for sale is not the iconic 21-foot-wide one that hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American Wing. Rather, it’s about 3 feet tall and 6 feet wide and is nearly identical to the Met’s version. Leutze created the 6-foot artwork after painting the massive canvas, making only one change in the smaller iteration—the removal of a watch fob Washington carries in the larger work, Penta writes.
The original artwork, completed in 1849, was also smaller. It hung in Germany’s Kunsthalle Bremen art museum until it was destroyed in an air raid during World War II, per the New York Times’ Maria Cramer.
Leutze sent the larger work and the smaller one now for sale, both completed in 1851, to the United States. The former hung in the Stuyvesant Institute in New York, and the latter was given to the commissioning art dealers Goupil, Vibert & Co. The engraving was widespread and enormously popular.
That artwork sold in 1973 to an anonymous collector for $260,000—the highest price ever paid for an American painting at the time. The collector loaned it to the White House, where it appeared in the West Wing reception room several times over the course of nearly four decades. It was privately sold in 2014 to the couple Mary Burrichter and Bob Kierlin, founders of the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, where it has been displayed since 2015. The current seller wishes to remain anonymous.
In a release, Christies said the artwork “defined its era” and “has had a profound and lasting impact on art history and popular culture.”
Christie’s American art department specialist Paige Kestenman tells the Times that before Leutze’s iteration of Washington as a fearless general, “painters had depicted Washington as regal, seen off to the side, or looking down on the battlefield.” In contrast, Leutze’s depiction shows the general in action alongside his men.
Leutze, an abolitionist, “aimed to represent the regional and ethnic diversity of the American army,” HistoryNet’s Peter A. Harrington writes, and included Black, Native American, and Scottish soldiers in the work. The Black man rowing close to Washington is believed to be either William “Billy” Lee, Washington’s enslaved personal assistant, or Prince Whipple, an enslaved man who joined the revolutionary cause after being promised his freedom.
Though Leutze depicts the crossing as a sprawling, icy traverse, in reality Continental Army troops only breached a section of the river less than 300 yards wide during the 1776 attack. Roughly 1,000 Hessians were captured, and only four American lives were lost.
Despite the immediate victory, Washington was forced to retreat from the town soon after, since 3,000 men and their accompanying artillery failed to cross at other points of the river. Though not seen as a significant battle victory, the attack bolstered the morale of both Washington’s troops and the public counting on them.
The image still holds iconic value today. It adorns history textbooks, appears on U.S. postage stamps and the back of the New Jersey state quarter, and is often parodied in pop culture. Among its most frequent reenactors are the Muppets, who have repeatedly referenced the crossing—and posed as a brave army—over the years.
The heroic artwork, meant to inspire 19th-century European revolutionaries and reinvigorate American patriotism, seemed to work its intended purpose in that era and beyond. When the larger work was displayed in New York in October 1851, it attracted over 50,000 paying viewers.
Young Henry James, just eight years old, was among them. As historian David Hackett Fischer writes, the novelist-to-be was entranced by its imagery, especially that of the standing general. Later, he wrote that “gaped responsive at every item,” from the ice to Washington’s erect figure among the chaos.
The boy’s enthusiastic reaction, HistoryNet notes, was just what the painter had hoped to create. James was “experiencing the painting as the artist had intended, not as an exact depiction of a historical event but as a celebratory tribute to the essence of the American spirit.”