Artist: George Caleb Bingham
Title: Washington Crossing the Delaware
Oil on canvas
Overall: 36 5/8 x 57 1/2 in. (93 x 146.1 cm) Overall, Frame: 48 x 69 1/8 x 5 1/2 in. (121.9 x 175.6 x 14 cm)
Gift of Walter P. Chrysler, Jr., in honor of Walter P. Chrysler, Sr.
What is happening in the foreground, or the front, of the painting? The background?
Who or what is most important in the painting? Why?
What sounds would you hear if you stepped inside this painting?
The painting illustrates the historic crossing of the Delaware River by George Washington and his troops. George Caleb Bingham paints Washington seated atop a horse, which forms the apex of a pyramid, with the oars creating the base of the triangular composition. Artists create a sense of stability and balance by using this choice of arrangement. Washington’s huddled men row across the frozen river almost directly toward the viewer. Bingham added minor embellishments to the scene. Washington was unlikely to have been mounted on his horse for the crossing. It would have made the ride too unstable. In addition, the event happened in the early hours of the morning, in the dark. Regardless, the artist is still able to capture the tense and risky crossing occurring on December 25, 1776 in a perilous snowstorm, leading to the Battle of Trenton.
After leading his troops to victory in America’s War for Independence, George Washington took office as the first President of the United States and became one of the most celebrated figures in American history. Bingham’s painting of Washington crossing the Delaware River is but one of several that references the monumental triumph, including Edward Hick’s (previous page) version of which he took inspiration from Thomas Sully's 1819 painting, Washington at the Passage of the Delaware (Boston Museum of Fine Arts). Within the collection of the Chrysler Museum of Art are three busts of George Washington wrapped in a toga, linking Washington to the ancient seat of democracy in Rome. You need only to look at the one-dollar bill to find another famous portrait of George Washington, as well as the quarter dollar coin first minted in 1932, 133 years after Washington’s death.
Look again at Bingham’s painting. What word would you use to describe Washington? Why? Would you consider him heroic in this painting? Why or why not?
If you were to create a work of art to commemorate a historic figure, whom would you choose and what event would you illustrate? What details would you include?