The painting returns to public view Jan. 16 freshly restored, surrounded by an elaborate new frame and in a more prominent location.
The museum acquired the 149-by-255-inch painting -- its largest -- in 1897. It has been displayed in the American Wing since the 1970s. After a year of restoration, it will be placed in the new American Wing Galleries for Paintings, Sculpture and Decorative Arts. Experts removed a brown-gray haze that covered the entire painting, revealing signatures believed to be those of Leutze's assistants.
The Met had displayed the painting in a plain gold frame in an effort to not distract from patriotic image, Met spokesman Harold Holzer said. But the thinking changed after a museum staff member doing research at the New-York Historical Society about five years ago came across an image of "Washington Crossing the Delaware" when it was displayed in 1864 during the Civil War.
"This photograph revealed that the original frame was ornate -- a thick gold frame with an American eagle on top and the words 'First in War, First in Peace, First in the Hearts of His Countrymen' across the top," Holzer said.
The museum commissioned framemaker Eli Wilmer of Manhattan to recreate that frame, he said. The ornate frame is gold plated, with shields, cannons, flag poles and other objects. Holzer declined to provide the cost of the project.
Leutze began work on the painting in his native Germany in 1848, and he and his assistants completed it in 1850. Leutze painted a full-size copy and sent it to the United States in 1851.
In 1897, private collector John S. Kennedy bought the painting for the then-large sum of $16,000 and donated it to the Met. The museum displayed it until 1950 and then loaned it to other museums until 1970, when it was returned.