Cove Neck artist Mort Kunstler has developed an international reputation...

Cove Neck artist Mort Kunstler has developed an international reputation for painting highly researched and historically accurate scenes of the Civil War and other climactic events. (Dec. 3, 2011) Credit: Newsday/Audrey C. Tiernan

The sky is dark and filled with sleet, not bright and clear. The Delaware River is clogged with broken sheets of ice, not mini-icebergs. And while Gen. George Washington is still standing, he's on a large ferry, not a small rowboat, and he's holding onto a cannon for support.

After two months of research, sketching and painting at the easel, Cove Neck historical artist Mort Künstler has finished his version of Washington Crossing the Delaware -- a project intended to retain the drama of the iconic patriotic image painted in 1851 by Emanuel Leutze while correcting its myriad historical errors.

Künstler's finished painting will be publicly unveiled by former Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi, who commissioned it, on Dec. 26 -- the anniversary of the daring 1776 attack on Trenton -- at the New-York Historical Society in Manhattan.

"I'm ecstatic," Suozzi said. "This, like the Leutze painting, is very inspirational. But it's also a more accurate reflection of what historians tell us transpired. December of 1776 was the lowest point of the Revolution. This painting, with the sleet and the dark of night, helps convey that it was such a desperate time when this courageous decision was made."

Suozzi has said he plans to lend the painting to museums.

Künstler is equally excited about the painting. "I think I captured it very well but it's very difficult for me to make a comment on my own work right after it's finished, anyway," he said. "But I do believe it will be the most important painting I've ever done, and right now I certainly feel it's one of the best I've ever done."

"Everything is probable in this painting," he said. "Nothing is definitively known except the obvious mistakes" historians have found in the Leutze painting.

To correct them, the artist talked to historians to learn about the river, the weather and the boats used in the area. "I worked from photos of the river when it was iced up," he said.

In the past, many historians assumed Washington crossed in a large Durham freight rowboat. Künstler, who shows one in the background ferrying troops, was convinced by current historians and his own research that Washington would have crossed on a flatboat ferry connected to a cable.

"Everyone knows he brought over 18 cannon and numerous horses," Künstler said, so he included three horses and a cannon on the ferry. He decided Washington would have wanted to cross with his horse.

When Suozzi, of Glen Cove, suggested Künstler 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.

But Suozzi eventually persuaded Künstler, whose past work includes paintings that correct romanticized depictions of Custer's Last Stand and other famous events -- and the pair traveled to the Delaware River in October.

"I visualized it from the very beginning right at the site," Künstler said, "and it came out just the way I visualized it."


What was wrong with the picture?


Historians note Emanuel Leutze's famous 1851 painting "Washington Crossing the Delaware," owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, contains numerous historical errors. Cove Neck historical artist Mort Künstler has corrected them in his new version.

Leutze's flubs

The crossing: The painting seems to show the trip in daylight rather than at night, and in clear weather; the Dec. 26, 1776, crossing took place in a nor'easter with heavy snow and sleet.

Delaware River: Not nearly as wide as depicted. At the crossing point, it's 800 feet from Pennsylvania to New Jersey.

Ice: Leutze shows the river clogged with mini-icebergs rather than broken-up sheet ice.

Wrong boat: Standing in a small boat in a storm, Washington probably would have fallen overboard or capsized the craft. Longer Durham cargo vessels -- one is shown in the background of the Künstler painting -- carried soldiers while a ferry transported horses, cannons and probably Washington, historians say.

The flag:Stars and Stripes was not adopted until 1777.

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