Monday, February 16, 2009

George Washington Gets a New Frame

In a post here at American Presidents Blog titled Monroe Crossing the Delaware I go into great detail regarding how I use Emanuel Leutze’s painting Washington Crossing the Delaware in my classroom.

Over the weekend I came across a web article detailing how the Metropolitan Museum of Art is attempting to surround the famous 21 by 12 foot painting with a replica of what is thought to be its original frame. You can see the Met’s page regarding the painting here.

The picture I’ve included below (credit: Todd Heisler/The New York Times) shows how the painting has looked for decades as it hung in the Met’s American wing. The web article goes on to state the process for recreating the frame should be completed by the end of March, but the frame would stay with the company commissioned to complete the job….Eli Wilner and Companyfor about two years while the Met renovates the American wing…As work is done in the gallery space, the painting has been moved to another section in its second-floor home because it’s too big to fit into an elevator. Rolling it up – as it was transported to the museum more than a century ago – would cause damage.

A New York Times article from February, 2007 I located at the Eli Wilner site advises …an entire new suite of galleries for American paintings and sculpture – scheduled to open in 2010 as the finale of the American Wing renovations – must be built around “Washington Crossing the Delaware.”

The scale of the painting’s conservation and reframing…”is unprecedented in the history of the museum to my knowledge,” said Dr. Carrie Rebora Barratt, curator of the restoration project, who is manager of the Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art at the museum. Dr. Barratt also stated, “But it is still very much a research project.”

It’s that very research that I find intriguing. The reframing of the painting commenced after a photograph was found showing the painting in a frame that was not previously known about.
The New York Times article advises [sometime in 2006] Dr. Barratt, while studying an 1864 album of [Matthew] Brady’s Art Exhibition photographs in the collection of the New York Historical Society, noticed an image of the Leutze painting in a dramatic gilded frame dominated by a 12-foot American-eagle crest at the top.

I’ve provided that very picture below (credit….Matthew Brady-The New York Historical Society)

From the web article it seems Leutze had specifically ordered the original [frame], which bore shields at each corner and was topped with an eagle crest and a ribbon that marked lines from George Washington’s eulogy: “First in War, First in Peace, and First in the Hearts of his Countrymen.”

[The frame] is believed to have been destroyed, but researchers continue to search the photographic record and are studying military iconography and the coinage of the mid-19th century, as well as the styles of carvers, to better reproduce the original design. After its conservation the painting is likely to be installed first, attached to steel beams embedded in a grand room of the new galleries, which are to be named after the late collector Peter Jay Sharp, whose foundation is a major contributor. Then the frame will be placed around the canvas, attached to the wall separately.

Gilding such an enormous frame will require more than 12,500 3.5-inch square sheets of gold leaves, 1/250,000th of an inch thick, at a cost of more than $12,000. In the original web article I read I learned Wilner and the Met wouldn’t disclose the cost of the frame, but Wilner said anyone who wanted to repeat the effort could expect to pay around $800,000.

Would I include this newly found information when I teach the American Revolution and share the painting with students?

You bet!

What a great way to show students historians are always finding new information and striving to “get it right” in sometimes very painstaking ways.

I’m very excited that I can now connect a famous painting depicting an event during the American Revolution to someone who is strongly connected to the Civil War….Matthew Brady.
What a great way to project students into future studies, and once we reach the Civil War….what a great way to spiral our talk back and reconnect to the American Revolution.

Happy President’s Day!


Greg said...

This is one of your best posts. How do you approach the "controversy" regarding the historical inaccuracies when you use the painting in class?

EHT said...

Thank you, Greg. I really appreciate that.

My writing energy has been a bit off over the last few months due to health issues, so I really needed your comment. :)

Follow the link at the beginning of the post to a past article of mine at History Is Elememtary titled "Madison Crossing the Delaware". I give a very detailed explanation regarding how I explain the inaccuracies.