'There it remained for more than a century, rolled up and in storage, until being put on view for the first time last November.'
From The Wall Street Journal:
Thomas Sully is unique among American painters for the quiet yet theatrical intensity of his work and his ability to draw the viewer into the drama. His "Passage of the Delaware" (1819) masterfully and accurately captures a moment of supreme importance to the American Revolution. That moment comes at about 3 a.m. on Dec. 26, 1776. The sky is ominous, as it is snowing. A half-rooted, blighted tree well symbolizes America's predicament.
After a disastrous defeat in New York, Gen. George Washington, with the remains of his rag-tag army, has fled south. There is talk of replacing him as commander of the Continental army. Congress has evacuated Philadelphia and moved to Baltimore. Thomas Paine, in camp with the troops, has penned the words "These are the times that try men's souls."
Yet all is not lost. A staff officer with Washington on the morning of Dec. 26 records in his diary: "I have never seen Washington so determined as he is now.... He is calm and collected, but very determined."
In Sully's masterwork, Washington and his army are now on the move. Astride a horse, right hand on his hip, Washington looks confident and proud that his army of 2,400 men with 18 artillery pieces has almost completed the crossing of the treacherous ice-choked Delaware River from Philadelphia, and will soon be fully assembled on the New Jersey shore. A throng of anxious men surrounds him. Gen. Henry Knox is pointing his sword. Gen. Nathanial Greene is mounting his horse. Washington's servant, William Lee, and a figure who may be Gen. John Sullivan look on uneasily. But the 44-year-old Washington is tranquil and resolute, his face serene. He seems transfigured, as if communing with the gods of fortune. Sully has turned a crucial juncture in time and history into a timeless work of art.
The painting has had a checkered history. Commissioned by the state of North Carolina to hang in its Senate Chamber, the finished picture, begun in 1819, turned out to be too large (at 17 feet by 12 feet) for that space, so Sully kept it himself. Shown without success in Philadelphia, it was sold to John Doggett, a wealthy Boston frame maker, in 1833 and subsequently made its way to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1903. There it remained for more than a century, rolled up and in storage, until being put on view for the first time last November when it was hung with the rest of the permanent collection in the MFA's Art of the Americas wing. (It is installed in a gallery with an especially high ceiling.)
The most famous portrait of Washington crossing the Delaware is the one painted in 1851 by Emanuel Leutze, a German immigrant. But that one is more stirring patriotic icon than accurate depiction. It has been ridiculed by some for its historical inaccuracies. The flag portrayed was not adopted till 1777, and Washington is shown standing in a row boat. He did stand during the crossing, but in a different sort of vessel. Huge freight boats transported the horses and cannon, while large Durham boats, used to transport pig iron from the Durham Iron Works to Philadelphia, carried troops.
Sully, by contrast, went to great lengths to be historically precise. Visiting the exact site of the crossing, he even sought out a relative of Belanger, who piloted the boat Washington took across the river. Sully wrote, "I was there on the twenty-third of December, and made my drawing during a snow storm, therefore have been able to give much accuracy to the representation."
Thomas Sully was born in Lincolnshire, England, in 1783, and he immigrated with his family to Charleston, S.C., in 1792. Both his parents were actors, and he performed as a child. But his father apprenticed him at age 12 to an insurance broker, who soon complained that the boy was "spoiling all paper that fell in his way with pictures." The broker advised that "Tom should become a painter."
The boy's first teacher, his brother Lawrence, was a painter of miniatures. On a visit to England in 1809, Thomas Sully met Benjamin West and took to heart West's belief that artists should create work that rises to the dignity of history and lives in posterity. In London, Sully became smitten by the work of Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830). John Clubbe writes in his definitive study, "Byron, Sully, and the Art of Portraiture" (2005) that the influence of Lawrence was present from the beginning, especially his casual elegance. Indeed, Sully is sometimes called the Lawrence of America.
Sully became 19th-century America's premier portrait painter. Philadelphia, then the nation's cultural capital, became his adopted city. Supporting a wife and nine children, he painted over 2,600 portraits in his lifetime, including masterpieces of Lord Byron and young Queen Victoria. James Fenimore Cooper, a staunch Federalist and wholly unsympathetic to Thomas Jefferson, was profoundly moved upon viewing Sully's portrait of Thomas Jefferson at West Point.
Sully's artistic ambition, to create a tour de force in the realm of history painting, was realized in "The Passage of the Delaware," in which the painter's theater background influenced his aesthetic technique. He knew how to paint a narrative and stage characters to stir up emotion. There's the strong contrast of light (Washington) vs. surrounding darkness; the equally striking contrast between Washington's group in the right foreground and the deep vista opening up to the left. Its an unusual composition, whose action, instead of being centered as is normally done, is all off on the right side. And, finally, there's the way the horse and rider are shown—not in profile, as is common in equestrian paintings, but at a three-quarters angle and twisting around, opening up the space of the painting.
Washington's surprise crossing of the Delaware and capture of a Hessian army at Trenton saved the American Revolution. After the British surrender at Yorktown, Va., in 1781, Washington invited the defeated Charles Cornwallis to dine with him. Gen. Cornwallis saluted Washington with a toast: "When the illustrious part that your Excellency has borne in this long and arduous contest becomes a matter of history, fame will gather your brightest laurels rather from the banks of the Delaware than from those of the Chesapeake."
Yet in Sully's lifetime and well beyond it, the artist's masterpiece depicting that world-changing moment failed to bring the painter the acclaim he sought. Perhaps now that it is prominently displayed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, "The Passage of the Delaware" will finally gather the laurels it so abundantly deserves.