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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


Revolutionary Art: For Independence

4 Dec

This parchment was used to call men to arms over two centuries ago.

Join or Die, a political illustration by Benjamin Franklin motivating the unity of the masses to fight against the British.

Paul Revere's sensationalized depiction of the "Boston Massacre" in 1770 rallied anti-British sentiment among the revolutionaries five years before the start of the war.

Paul Revere’s rendering of the Boston Massacre in 1770 called the public to notice the actions of British.

34. The Savages Let Loose

The Savages Let Loose, 1783 by William Humphrey


The Bostonians Paying the Excise-Man, 1774 British propaganda print that depicts the tarring and feathering of Boston Commissioner of Customs John Malcolm.

RESPONSE WEEK 2: What’s wrong with this painting?

6 Nov

            The depiction of history is as many things in our contemporary culture, glamorized. It seems relevant to bring attention to what appears as a constant desire to make the dirty work seem as an Easy-Bake cake. If we look at Trajan’s column, which we discussed the first week, a similar approach to idealizing a nothing but subtle situation is apparent in Washington Crossing the River. The Trajan’s column though depicting a scene of war, a ferocious battle, and a victory, narrates to the viewer a series of events, which figures are idealized gestural and aesthetically, and thou exaggerating perhaps on the battle’s difficulties. The standing relief carved marble sculpture stands as a commemoration of a projected cultural identity.  Where as Washington crossing the river, a two-dimensional work, oil painting meant for interior display shares with the viewer a historical event of its own and depicting a national hero, who is an icon but could be anybody. The painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware, focuses on a moment of a historic chapter, rather than depicting chronological series as events as the column does. Yet they both propagate and are intended to inform the viewer (the citizens) on their national history, or what those who commission and fund such works want the story to tell. The theme I would like to address overall is the glamorization of imagery for political power purposes, and how the painting, Washington Crossing the River does so.

            As described in the article ­What’s wrong with this painting? the situations American soldiers when crossing the Delaware faced, were in real life nothing as what the painting depicts. By showcasing an image of heroic and virile figures to promote nationalism and the military forces, it seems the intentions of the artist, and of those who commissioned it is for the public to see the grandness not of the particular individuals, but what they stand for. That of democracy that of fighting and persevering through hard times keeping face. Taking notice of Emmanuel Leutze, the German painter who created the work, would have had no idea what such event looked like. Yet his life experiences and longing for a political transformation in his native country, seem to contribute to the beautified depiction of Washington Crossing the Delaware. The fact that a germane painter was commissioned to create this work does in a way bring doubts about the nationalistic pride. It reminds me of Mexico’s most recent monument celebrating the bicentennial independence, which should be a celebration of what the nation has been and what is overcome, instead they build a minimal light tower with imported stones from Italy. Regardless this is a topic of its own, yet the matter that foreigner identities are integrated to a celebration of a nation, brings question on what a national identity is, and how it is developed. To be proud of historical achievements and depicting idealized versions is a tactic used throughout history. I just find it very peculiar how humans in different geographical and historical context seek to portray the “ideal”.


So the purpose of the painting is to represent the strength of a country, the perseverance of its men through the hard weather, but never loosing the cool.  To the day this painting is a symbol of the United States proud military. I agree with feeling proud of one’s own sediments, but not when based on fallacy. It makes me wonder why is the hard work and falls hidden behind a glossy image. It brings me to the conclusion that since the Romans, to early American history, and to present day, the idealization and glamorized imagery of political matters is present when communicating to the people of a country a given history. Some would argue that photojournalism removes this tool from some contemporary politicians, yet still with the flow of real, banal, and brutal imagery reaching the public many images at times become desensitized and in extreme case scenarios, glamorized.