Taking Liberty with a Grin
Can you close your eyes and imagine the famous painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware?
Remember the general standing tall, facing the wind, in a tiny boat?
An American flag unfurls while sailors guide the craft through chunks of ice.
It’s nighttime, Christmas, 1776, and Washington is planning to attack a group of Germans (British allies) in Trenton, New Jersey.
Earlier that winter, Washington and his troops were driven from New York, south to New Jersey, and morale ebbed low among the Americans.
Washington’s surprise attack in the freezing early-morning hours would prove a success.
Today the Christmas-time battle is considered a turning point in the American Revolution.
Washington crossing the Delaware River was memorialized by the painter Emmanuel Leutze and his canvas hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Leutze, who painted the scene 75 years after the Revolution, took some artistic liberties.
For example, the flag in the painting didn’t exist until Betsy Ross fashioned the stars-and-stripes a year after Washington attacked the Germans at Trenton.
And the General could hardly stand erect in a crowded rowboat while the crew used oars to cut through the ice—the boat would have rocked terribly.
History is largely reimagined by painters and writers, which makes the current exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum especially salient.
Imagine George Washington Carver—not George Washington—crossing the Delaware River.
Painter Robert Colescott re-imagined the historic event on the eve of America’s Bicentennial with his own interpretation in 1975.
Colescott’s painting shows Carver, a botanist, environmentalist and professor, standing erect in a rowboat, a flag unfurling behind him, and surrounded by Black denizens, while crossing the Delaware.
Like Leutze, Colescott takes liberties.
With a grin.
Colescott offers caricatures of Black Americans.
There’s a chef dressed in white, a bandana-ed Mammy, and a cigar-smoking banjo-player among the crew.
Colescott explained that the painting, “makes fun of tokenism.”
“I juxtaposed the dignity of George Washington Carver with the buffoons in the boat.”
Reimagining history is the focus of the exhibit we saw in Seattle, which features the works of Colescott, Kerry James Marshall and Mickalene Thomas.
The Museum asks:
- Who is represented in history?
- Who shares your history?
- Who shapes your history?
The three African-American painters address the questions, and raise new questions, such as:
What happens when we view American history through the lens of an American Indian? A Mexican-American farmworker? An Asian immigrant?
The exhibit, called Figuring History, runs through May 13 at the Seattle Art Museum.
6 April 2018