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Mort Künstler feted as painting's unveiled

Cove Neck Artist Mort Künstler stands before his

Cove Neck Artist Mort Künstler stands before his work entitled "Washington's Crossing at McKonkey's Ferry" alongside former Nassau County Executive and history buff Thomas Suozzi. (Dec. 26, 2011) Credit: Steven Sunshine

Cove Neck artist Mort Künstler was praised by historians Monday night for painting the most accurate depiction ever of George Washington crossing the Delaware as his work "Washington's Crossing at McKonkey's Ferry" was publicly unveiled.

David Hackett Fischer, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Washington's Crossing" and the featured speaker at the New-York Historical Society in Manhattan, said Künstler's work was "quite accurate.

"He got more right about the crossing than any other image," Fischer said of Künstler.

The unveiling was on the anniversary of the 1776 attack on Trenton by American forces against the British. Gen. George Washington's crossing of the Delaware River that night has been portrayed in scores of paintings, most notably the iconic 1851 painting by Emanuel Leutze.

Fischer noted he had seen more than 200 depictions of the crossing, including those by Charles Wilson Peale and John Trumbull, who were with Washington.

Moderator Harold Holzer, a Civil War historian and chief spokesman for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which owns the original Leutze painting that most Americans know more than any of the others, called Künstler "the best-known and most respected historical artist in this country."

The event was organized by former Nassau County executive Thomas Suozzi, a history buff who commissioned the painting to correct known errors in Leutze's work.

"What Mort accomplished so brilliantly is showing how desperate conditions were" during the low point of the American Revolution, Suozzi said. He said the painting would remain at the Historical Society for a week for the public to view.

"We hope that children and all Americans will learn from this picture," he said.

Fischer said, "Mort has seen things here that have eluded historians before him," such as putting Washington's Life Guard unit into a painting of the crossing for the first time.

Based on two months of research, Künstler painted a dark sky filled with sleet, not bright and clear like the classic painting by Leutze. The river in Künstler's version is clogged with broken sheets of ice, not mini-icebergs. And while Washington is still standing, he's on a large ferry, not a small rowboat, and he's holding onto a cannon for support. There is no Stars and Stripes because that flag was not adopted until 1777.

State comptroller Tom DiNapoli, who holds a history degree from Hofstra university, said, "I think Mort has achieved the proper balance of accuracy and inspiration." He praised Suozzi for commissioning the piece.

Since he finished the canvas several weeks ago, Künstler, a renowned historical artist, has been circulating the image to historians for feedback.

Clay Craighead, historian at Washington Crossing State Park in Titusville, N.J., said last week, "It was nicely done. We don't know how Washington crossed; the documentation is so thin."

But Craighead said he found no factually inaccurate elements. "I love the use of the ferryboat. That's the only way they would've gotten cannons and horses across. Showing Washington on the boat with the cannon is reasonable. The ice was done pretty well."

Suozzi said he is working on plans for public exhibition of the painting that cost him more than $50,000, as well as determining where its permanent home will be.

"I'm looking for a philanthropist to commission a version of the Künstler painting the same heroic size of the Leutze painting," Suozzi said. The new image is about 4 feet wide and 3 feet high; Leutze's is about 21 feet wide and 12 feet high.

Although Suozzi had to lobby Künstler hard to get him to do the painting, Künstler said, "I believe it will be the most important painting I've ever done."

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