Emanuel Leutze: Interpretation and Manipulation

11 Dec

When first learning about the Crossing of the Delaware, I had no idea how interpretative the actual piece was. When growing up, I longed learned about this painting and how important it was to American society. However, throughout my K-12 career, I was never told of how wrong the painting was in almost every aspect. Only until college did I ever learn that Emanuel took it upon himself to take artistic liberties and change various things about the scene that weren’t even historically correct. When looking at the river, historians have long found that the river is in fact not the Delaware but one that is from Emanuel’s childhood back in Germany. Various other things stick out, such as the George Washington on the boat (his standing position as is), and the people in the boat itself. His work is often the reflection of his own thoughts and representations and tends to force that interpretation onto the viewer. In this way, his work as an embodiment, is propaganda.

Just a quick comparison of another artist, Jacques-Louis David with his Napoleon Crossing the Alps, you have a similar theme in Emanuel’s paintings. Often times, the figure is larger than life and is depicted heroically leading his men into action. A spot light is often times leading the viewer’s eyes to that individual. In the George Washington Crossing the Delaware piece, you have the same effect. George Washington bravely stands over his men and thus, is the spotlight figure. The only thing taller and larger than him is the American flag. However, the flag is still minimized in comparison to the figure. Another piece he did was George Washington rallying the troops. In this painting, George Washington is almost dead center, while a battle, or before, is going on and has a great deal of space around him. His troops surround him and seem to be listening to what he is saying and begins the rallying. In this one, there is a giant cloud of smoke in the background, just behind George Washington’s head, which acts the guider for the viewer.

Technically speaking, all artist’s do that. Manipulate the eyes to see what the artist wants you to see. However, in one of his paintings, you see that the painting is technically done well but the signals are greatly mixed. In Emanuel Leutze’s The Storming of Teocalli by Cortez and his troops, the overall visual is very chaotic and the eye goes a bit everywhere. However, it is very prevalent to me that Emanuel somehow favors Cortez and his troops and his troops. Throughout the scene, Cortez is standing over the ruler about to strike him down with his superior weapons. His men are looking triumphant and a little vain. The Aztec people are running around, looking completely defeated and have clubs instead of the weapons they would have had. Throughout the piece, many of the people are looking scared and running around hastily. Many Aztec people are dead in this piece but none are as prevalent as the Spanish man lying dead on the steps. His helmet and gun lay neatly beside him, looking like more of a memorial than a “just died in battle” sort of death. In the left, almost completely cropped out, is a monk praying over a dead Aztec’s body. In one quote I found, a duke that had known Emanuel said that the Aztec’s looked “Demonic” and that there black hair was like of the “devil.”

Throughout his entire collection of work, Emanuel does things that many historical painters have done, create interpretative history. As someone who has grown up with photography, I believe that I am biased when it comes to seeing facts as they are but, seeing his work as whole makes me think that he is a very good manipulator.

L. Engle


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