What did you do on Christmas morning? Slowly sipped coffee as you rustled through your stockings? Chatted with friends and family at church? Stealthily crossed a frigid river for a surprise attack against Hessian forces? That last one is what George Washington did in 1776 at the Battle of Trenton, a moment that artist Mort Künstler memorialized his painting Washington’s Crossing at McKonkey’s Ferry that is currently on view at the New-York Historical Society until January 17, 2012.
Künstler told CityRoom that he based his painting off the 1851 work Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze. But where Leutze sacrificed historical accuracy for artistic flair, Künstler believed the two could coexist. So after two months of painstaking research, Künstler’s work is unveiled. In place of Leutze’s rowboat, Washington stands on a flatboat ferry. Where Leutze depicts Washington standing tall, Künstler has him against a cannon for support, more in level with his troops and battling the severe winter weather records show he faced.
In Leutze’s time, depicting Washington as a tall, strong leader added to the mythology behind America’s first president. But there is something utterly humanizing about Künstler’s work. We don’t see a man who knows he’s a hero. We see a man fighting against the cold, the ice, and soon against violent Hessians, silently crossing a river in the dark to fight for a cause he believes in. He has a look of confidence, but you can also detect fear. Or maybe he’s just relishing a moment of relative calm before the upcoming battle. But Künstler proves in his work that historical accuracy can be just as compelling as a myth.