Art History

Christie’s Offers Washington Crossing the Delaware

The image from the height of history painting will appear in the Modern Evening Sale

One of the most recognizable, reproduced, and parodied images of American history comes to the block at Christie’s this spring. The auction house announced today that Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware will be featured in the 20th Century Evening Sale taking place live on May 12th, 2022 in New York. The work is estimated at $15 million.

The painting is one of three versions, but only two survive today. A version that hung in the Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany was destroyed in a World War II air raid. The other is the centerpiece of the American Wing at the Met. Christie’s example is much smaller and has previously been exhibited at White House.

“Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware is arguably the most important work of pre-War American Art to ever come to the market, and indeed set the record for any American painting at auction when sold in the 1970s,” explains Tylee Abbott, Head of the American Art Department at Christie’s. The painting sold at auction twice during its White House tenure, first in 1973 and then in 1979. In 2018, another American scene by Leutze sold at Sotheby's in New York. The painting sold for $4,815,000 over a $2,500,000 estimate. 

This image became embedded in the American psyche through its early and widespread reproduction. The original commission included the need for a smaller version to be reproduced as an engraving. The popularity of engraving helped make the image so popular and current in American culture. “Every town and village along that vast stretch of double river-frontage had a best dwelling,” wrote Mark Twain in 1883. “Over middle of mantel, engraving—Washington Crossing the Delaware; on the wall by the door, copy of it done in thunder-and-lightning crewels by one of the young ladies …”

Today, the composition is still reproduced widely. It lives on the cover of high school history textbooks. It adorns the New Jersey state quarter. “Leutze’s composition has been reused and reinterpreted by artists from Grant Wood to Robert Colescott, and found its way into popular imagery from the Saturday Evening Post to The New Yorker,” commented Vanessa Fusco, Co-Head of 20th Century Art Evening Sale. Larry Rivers’ 1953 interpretation of the same name resides in the permanent collection of the MoMA in New York. Robert Colescott’s 1975 reinterpretation of the painting, George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook, came to the block at Sotheby’s just last year in May 2021. It sold for $15,315,900 over a $9,000,000 estimate. 

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