Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze was born in Wurttemberg Germany, but he and his parents emigrated to America in 1825 to avoid religious persecution. His father also was an anti-monarchist activist whose ideals heavily influence Emanuel’s subject matter as a painter. The family settled first in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and later moved to Philadelphia. Leutze began drawing to pass the time while he attended his father’s sickbed. Friends and relatives realized the fourteen year old Leutze had talent. He began selling portraits for $5.00 each to help support the family after his father’s death in 1831. He had his first art lessons from John Rubens Smith in Philadelphia. Beginning to be a successful portrait painter, Leutze decided to go to Washington, DC, in 1837 to increase his potential for commissions. However, his timing was poor; as America was suffering a financial panic, and commissions were hard to obtain.
He decided to seek more training and returned to Germany where he enrolled in the Art Academy of Dusseldorf. The Academy had become extremely popular in the 1840’s and 1850’s. He met several American artists there: Worthington Whittredge, Eastman Johnson, George Caleb Bingham and Richard Caton Woodville. All returned to American to establish successful careers. Also a teacher at the Academy, Leutze’s students included Albert Bierstadt and James Whistler. (Both previously featured in articles in the SPY).
Leutze’s paintings are fine examples of the Dusseldorf Style, with polished and detailed surfaces and heroic themes. Leutze’s anti-monarchist leanings were stimulated by his increased interest in America; he developed a deep appreciation for American ideas of freedom and democracy. “Christopher Columbus before the High Council of Salamanca” (1841) (31.5 “x 40.5”) was Leutze’s first historical painting. It was based on his reading of Washington Irving’s account of the council’s examination of Columbus’s proposal to create a route to the East Indies by sailing to the west.
In a crowded room, Columbus stands at the left end of a long table draped with red cloth and filled with huge heavy books. Leutze has placed Columbus in the light and accentuates his significance by dressing him in white garments. A single examiner is seated at the center of the table, and many observers stand at the back wall of the room. Seated at the right end of the table, opposite Columbus, are a cardinal in red, a bishop with a mitre, and a monk. In front of these figures, two other examiners sit in the shadows with their backs to the viewer. These two figures effectively close the right hand corner of the composition. The council seems weighted with religious figures. The church men and Columbus are at opposite sides of the composition, suggesting their positions on the issue before them. The young man in the center of the table and the shadowed figures in the lower right are carefully listening to Columbus’s arguments and could be swayed. The viewer can easily over look a small element in the composition: an hour glass set in the middle of the table. Time is running out. Although Leutze’s first painting of this type, it was purchased as soon as it was finished it by the Dusseldorf Art Union.
Leutze’s next historical painting, “The Return of Christopher Columbus Chained in Cadiz” (1842) won a gold medal at the Brussels Art Exhibition. Later this work was purchased by the Art Union of New York, and it was used as the image for the United States $2.00 Columbus stamp of 1892. “Columbus before the Queen” (1843) (39’’ x 51’’) is the third of Leutze’s six paintings of Columbus, and it continued the Columbus story. Columbus made four voyages to the New World between 1492 and 1503. For the third voyage in 1499, he was appointed Governor of the numerous Spanish colonies he had established. However, the colonists became dissatisfaction with supplies and contact with Spain. He was accused of neglect and tyranny, arrested and returned to Cadiz, and imprisoned for six weeks before King Ferdinand freed him. Isabella had placed the responsibility for the New World on Columbus’s shoulders and she realized no one man could possibly please the numerous interests involved. As a result she relieved Columbus of his duties of governor and appointed others to share the expanding duties.
Leutze places Columbus just slightly right of center in the composition and standing before Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand who are slightly left of center. No one is directly in the middle. Columbus points to the chains lying on the carpet at his feet. Leutze has created a classic triangular composition of figures. Ferdinand’s head is slightly higher than that of the Queen’s. Isabella appears distressed, and perhaps embarrassed at the treatment of Columbus. Leutze’s elaborate Dusseldorf classical style is evident in the number of figures who crowd around. There are a variety of types, poses and expressions: some thoughtful, some questioning, and some curious. One particularly interesting figure is the helmeted and armed soldier pushing forward on the far right of the composition.
Of interest is Leutze’s depiction of the large and elaborate background, the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain, where this encounter actually took place. Although there is no record of Leutze having visited the Alhambra, black and white photographs and engravings of the palace were available at the time. Isabella and Ferdinand entered Granada on January 2, 1492, and received the keys to the city from the Muslim ruler Muhammad XII, who had surrendered. The Alhambra, built by the Muslim rulers, became the residence of Isabella and Ferdinand. Three months later Isabella agreed to Columbus’s proposal.
Columbus’s letters to Isabella and Ferdinand were published in 1495. Columbus described the people he encountered as “so unsuspicious and so generous with what they possess, that no one who had not seen it would believe it. They never refused anything that is asked for. They even offer it themselves, and show so much love that they would give their hearts…I forbade worthless things being given to them such as bits of broken bowls, pieces of glass, and old straps, although they were as much pleased as if they were the finest jewels in the world.” In her last will and testament, Queen Isabella stated, “And do not give rise to or allow the Indians (American indigenes) to receive any wrong in their persons and property, but rather that they be treated well and fairly, and if they have received any wrong, remedy it.” We know how that turned out.
The six paintings of Christopher Columbus and the discovery of America were Leutze’s first venture into history painting. America represented freedom, liberty, and democracy to Leutze. “Washington Crossing the Delaware” (1850) (12.4’ x 21.2’) was the first in Leutze’s series of paintings of George Washington. Leutze painted this subject with the intention of stimulating the German Confederation to continue the struggle for freedom and liberty against the Austrian Empire. The first revolt of 1848 failed. Leutze belonged to the group of reformers who wanted freedom for the Germans. He used tourists and students as models for the painting. The original, was damaged by a fire in Leutze’s studio, was subsequently restored. A second version of the painting was commissioned by Adolphe Goupil, a Parisian art dealer, for his New York City gallery. The painting was first exhibited in 1851 and immediately purchased by Marshall O. Roberts for $10,000.
This painting has continued to be celebrated for the spirit it represents rather than the reality it depicts. The crossing was known to have taken place in the middle of night, but Leutze chose to depict dawn breaking for a more dramatic lighting effect. Not having traveled to Delaware, Leutze depicted the river as the wider Rhine, rather than the much narrower Delaware at the crossing. The American flag as depicted was not in use in American until 1777. The boat is too small to hold twelve men. Although Washington is posed most heroically, the roughness of the water and the huge chunks of ice would have made it impossible for him to maintain his standing position. These observed and inaccuracies can be dismissed as being artistic invention.
The three figures in the front of the boat prove to be a notable group perhaps representing the melting pot of fighters for American freedom from English tyranny. . Leutze has placed at the very front in the boat a frontiersman in coonskin cap, and next a Scotsman in a beret. The third figure, in top hat with a red scarf and cuffs, is a Black man. Some historians have speculated that he could be Prince Whipple, an African slave in the service of William Whipple of New Hampshire. Prince Whipple was alive at the time and served with Colonel Whipple in the Revolution. Whether or not this figure is actually Whipple, it is true that many Black soldiers did cross the Delaware with their masters and Washington. They were promised freedom if they fought in the Revolutionary War, and some received it. Others, like Prince Whipple, did not become free until much later: others remained slaves.
Leutze’s new found success in America encouraged him to try New York again. He, his wife and children left Dusseldorf for New York City in 1859. He set up a studio in the city and traveled back and forth from New York to Washington, DC. Leutze painted “The Settlement of Maryland by Lord Baltimore” in 1861, an exquisitely painted but certainly fanciful work. He continued to paint portraits of many prominent Americans including Nathaniel Hawthorne (1862), General Ambrose Burnside (1863), and General Ulysses S. Grant (1866). In 1860 the United States Congress commissioned him to decorate the west staircase of the House of Representative. The mural “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” (20 feet x 30 feet) was begun on July 1861 and completed in November 1862. To be as accurate as possible, Leutze traveled to Colorado to sketch the Rocky Mountains. He was paid $20,000 for the mural.
Always dedicated to freedom, Leutze was an abolitionist; he was working on a painting titled “The Emancipation of the Slaves,” that was unfinished at his death. On July18, 1868, Leutze collapsed in front of the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC, and he died within hours as a result of sunstroke and heat prostration. He is buried in the Glenwood Cemetery in Washington DC.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.