Thomas Sully: George Washington and The Passage of the Delaware
Elliot Bostwick Davis
On the night of 25 December 1776, George Washington led his ragged Continental Army through a snowstorm across the Delaware River, on the way to a surprise attack that would turn the tide of the American Revolution. More than forty years later, the ambitious young painter Thomas Sully chose this dramatic moment as the subject of a portrait of the founding father. He combined careful research into contemporary sources, compositional models drawn from European and American history paintings, and his own flair for theatricality to create a monumental panorama. In it, a dramatically lighted Washington urges on the troops from the back of a magnificent white steed, while his troops contend with the wintry river crossing below. The Passage of the Delaware, the first large-scale painting of this iconic moment, was created in the early years of the burgeoning cult of George Washington, when American artists, writers, and politicians evoked the heroic deeds of the founding fathers to foster a sense of national purpose and unity. This compact introduction to the painting reveals how Sully’s imagination, technique, and ambition came together to embody the drama of the Revolution and the character of its leaders.
Elliot Bostwick Davis is John Moors Cabot Chair, Art of the Americas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.