Kunstler to paint new Washington portrait

Cove Neck artist Mort Kunstler, draws a sketch

Cove Neck artist Mort Kunstler, draws a sketch to use on his next project, the Crossing of the Delaware. (Sept. 29, 2011) (Credit: Audrey C. Tiernan)

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Mention Washington crossing the Delaware and one image immediately comes to mind: the future president standing tall in a small boat, in daylight, in front of a wind-whipped American flag, with ice chunks clogging the river.

That scene, depicted in an iconic 1851 painting by artist Emanuel Leutze, is rife with historical errors. Now former Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi has commissioned Cove Neck artist Mort Künstler to paint an accurate depiction of Gen. George Washington's Christmas night 1776 crossing of the Delaware River.

The surprise Revolutionary War assault on British mercenaries in Trenton, N.J., that followed the crossing reversed the flagging fortunes of the commander.

"I've always been excited about the story," Suozzi said. "Everything had gone wrong for Washington and his important decision changed the whole course of America. . . . It's raining, it's sleeting and three other columns can't get across. In Leutze's painting the sun is shining and he is standing up in front of the boat with this glacial ice -- it's so unrealistic."

When Suozzi, who has known Künstler for five years, suggested the artist undertake a new rendering of the crossing, the artist resisted. He feared a revised version of an image so ingrained in America's consciousness might not be well-received.

"I said, 'How do I go against this iconic image?' " said Künstler, who suggested a scene of Washington on horseback on the riverbank instead.

Suozzi was unmoved.

"I said, 'No, Mort. We have to go right up against this painting and use it as a vehicle to tell the true story of what really happened,' " Suozzi said.

Künstler -- whose past work includes paintings that correct romanticized depictions of Custer's Last Stand, Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders' charge up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War, and other events -- finally agreed.

In the third-floor studio of his house overlooking Oyster Bay Harbor, the artist has been making a series of small pencil sketches after visiting the site of the crossing and conferring with historians. They show a rough outline of Washington standing in a ferry holding a cannon wheel.

Scattered around Künstler's easel are a copy of the Leutze painting, images of Colonial river craft, and photos he has taken of the Delaware from the New Jersey and Pennsylvania parks that commemorate Washington's daring initiative.

He expects to finish the oil painting by the anniversary of the event in December.

Suozzi, who lives in Glen Cove, said he commissioned the work for which he will pay the "mid-to-high five figures." Suozzi said he plans to lend it to museums but hasn't decided where its permanent home will be.

Clay Craighead, a historian at Washington Crossing State Park in Titusville, N.J., said Künstler is focused on being historically accurate.

"Every artist's interpretation of the crossing that I have seen has some things that I consider accurate and some that are artistic license or at least not provable," he said. "It's just not documented how he [Washington] came across."

Harold Holzer, senior vice president for external affairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has owned the Leutze painting since 1897, said:Artists have been copying and paying tribute to Washington crossing the Delaware ever since it was first shown in New York City in the mid-19th century. "We're pleased that Tom Suozzi wants to commission a new look at this picture and that Mort Künstler is going to make an attempt. It calls attention to the power of the original."

The museum currently is restoring the Leutze painting and placing it in a new frame. It will be returned to public view Jan. 16.

Künstler decided to paint Washington standing on a flatboat ferry connected to a river-spanning cable because "my logic is that he never would have parted with his horse and he would have used a ferry, which was the safest way to cross."

Craighead and other historians agree that cannons, horses -- and probably Washington -- would have crossed on the ferry. Meanwhile, 40 soldiers at a time would have stood packed into 60-foot-long Durham boats, which were far larger than the craft painted in Germany by Leutze, who grew up in Philadelphia and may have visited the site.

Despite his initial reluctance, Künstler said the painting could be the one that cements his reputation. "I have no doubt that 100 years from now that if there is one painting that I am known for, it will be this one," he said.

 

Washington's desperate attack 

Things had gone badly for Gen. George Washington and the American cause during 1776 until the commander in chief gambled everything on a bold stroke at the end of the year.

After a series of Revolutionary War defeats, including August's Battle of Long Island and subsequent clashes that left New York City in British hands, Washington was in Pennsylvania in December facing the disintegration of his small army as enlistments expired at year's end.

So during a snowy nor'easter on Christmas night, Washington loaded his troops and 18 cannon on a ferry and ore boats and crossed the ice-clogged Delaware River to New Jersey. Three other columns failed to cross downstream to join the attack or create a diversion.

Four hours behind schedule, Washington's army began the 9-mile march south to Trenton having lost the possibility of the planned predawn attack. But the 2,400 Americans still surprised and defeated 1,500 Hessian mercenaries in two hours of fighting early on Dec. 26. Estimates vary widely, but between 22 and about 80 Hessians were killed and around 900 captured. Two Americans died in the fighting.

Washington recrossed the river and then returned several days later for a successful surprise attack on a British force in Princeton, greatly boosting American morale.

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