Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Inaccuracies in the Arts--Artistic License or Blatant Missteps?

 By Jennifer Uhlarik


I recently stumbled across an interesting mini-article about the famous Emanuel Leutze painting titled Washington Crossing the Delaware. In it, the author of said article mentioned five major “mistakes” in the artwork. But are they all truly inaccuracies, or are they examples of creative license? Before I get expound on the five points from his article, let me wax poetic for a moment.

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze


My husband and I enjoy critiquing the authenticity of the events or details in the television shows and movies we watch. It’s a favorite pastime for my retired cop husband to point out all the ways they get the particulars of law enforcement scenes wrong—anything from characters mishandling firearms to the quickness with which the show’s heroes come up with the exact right case-breaking details in about ten computer keystrokes and 2.5 seconds. We’ve expanded our critiques beyond just law enforcement details to all manner of things. If movies tout themselves as “based on historical events,” we often look up the details and compare the true events to the movie version and try to understand why the show’s creators chose to make certain changes. Were they artistic license, or were they gross displays of not understanding the reality of the subject matter?


Perhaps this is why, when I write historical novels, I try hard to get the facts as right as possible—I know arm chair historians will be out there critiquing my work. And I take great pains to point out in my author’s note where I fudged the history in order to make details fit the story I was telling. It’s become an interesting exercise for me as a fiction writer to look at why other authors or movie makers choose to change details. If I can understand the “why” of a change, I’m more likely to look kindly on those changes and not roast the creator for not knowing their history.

George Washington


So what is the history of Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware? It is based upon the historical Christmas night crossing by General George Washington and his troops. Asked to sign a one-year commitment to fight, the Continental Army’s spirits were flagging. They’d suffered defeat after defeat, and their one-year commitment was up in a matter of days. If something didn’t change, many would return home and the war would end in a dismal defeat for the fledgling nation. But on this night, a series of Christmas miracles occurred. The Hessian troops in Trenton, New Jersey, were aware of a possible attack, but with it being Christmas and with the arrival of an unexpected nor’easter, the sentries and guards were lulled into a false sense of security. The abhorrent storm that moved in provided General Washington and his troops the cover of fog and sleet, albeit at the cost of much physical discomfort. Yet they pressed on, crossing the Delaware River in stealth and marching unopposed into the center of town. The battle of Trenton is said to have taken a mere forty-five minutes from start to finish, with some twenty Hessians killed, over one hundred wounded, and more than one thousand captured—while the American forces suffered only three deaths, and those were from the freezing conditions, rather than wounds inflicted in battle.


The artist, Mr. Emanuel Leutze, was born in Germany in 1816, about thirty years after Washington’s crossing, and came to America before he turned ten. His first exposure to art came as he began to draw to pass the long hours of sitting beside his ill father’s sickbed. At age fourteen, he trained under a prominent Philadelphia portrait artist and eventually earned enough money to return to Dusseldorf, Germany, where he studied for a year in a prominent art school. He painted the iconic image of Washington’s miraculous river crossing in 1851, some seventy-five years after the historical battle occurred. Washington Crossing the Delaware is one of many historical paintings he did in his lifetime, though it is likely the most well-known.

Photo of Emanuel Leutze, circa 1860s


So, by now, you’re probably wondering what “inaccuracies” were in Mr. Leutze’s famous painting. Well, the article I read stated these five things:


1.     That the people depicted in the painting were not American soldiers, but rather German students.


2.     That the river was not the Delaware River, but was, in fact, the Rhine River.


3.     That no soldier would point his gun’s muzzle toward the sky in the middle of a sleet storm.


4.     The boats depicted in the painting were far too small. In fact, General Washington used boats that were between forty and sixty feet long.


5.     And finally, that the Stars and Stripes flag was not even created until almost a year after the Christmas crossing and Battle of Trenton.


I ask again, are these truly mistakes, or are they artistic license? In my humble opinion, most can be dismissed as artistic license. Here’s why I say that.


On the first point—that German students were drawn instead of American soldiers: Mr. Leutze was born forty-odd years after the historic Battle of Trenton, and he created his beautiful, patriotic painting seventy-five years after the events in question in a country far removed from the historic locale. It would’ve been impossible for him to capture the true participants in his painting, so he used those he had—German students. I call this artistic license.


Second point—it was the Rhine River, not the Delaware. Again, due to the timing of his creation and his location when he painted it, he used what he had access to. While not all rivers are the same, he evoked the feeling of the Delaware, even if what he drew was some completely different river in a far-away country. Again, I chalk this up to his creativity, not a true mistake.


Third point—soldiers wouldn’t point their gun muzzles skyward in the middle of a storm. Oh, how I agree with this point, but is it a “mistake” for him to have depicted soldiers that way? Um, I’m not so sure it’s truly a mistake. The artist was attempting to evoke a mood, a feeling, to give his viewers a sense of place and time. That includes showing that these are soldiers, fighting men. If he’d depicted those men as having set their weapons down in the bottom of the boat (which, from my research, were often very full of water), then would those viewing the artistic creation have realized they were soldiers? The soldiers depicted are a ragtag bunch in all manner of clothing—not in pristine, matching uniforms, so without the guns visible, those viewing the artwork may have missed the fact these were soldiers. Again, I count this as artistic license.


Fourth point—the boats were too small to be the real ones used. Okay, he could’ve depicted this more accurately. But why didn’t he? I have a feeling he chose the smaller vessels for his painting not out of some misunderstanding of history, but because to depict a larger boat would’ve made the men in those boats smaller, meaning that he couldn’t include the details of their physical struggle to the degree he did. The point of this painting is to evoke the struggle these men went through, the hardship of a river crossing in the midst of a horrible storm. He wanted those viewing the painting to feel their struggle, not to see a long boat with distant men rowing. Again, I chalk this up to artistic license.


Lastly, the flag depicted wasn’t created until a year after the Battle of Trenton. If any of these five points could be true “mistakes”, this is probably the one that falls in that category. But to this modern woman’s view, I wonder how easily Mr. Leutze could’ve found an image of the correct flag and painted it, rather than the one he did. It wasn’t like he had access to the internet, where in 2.5 seconds, one can make ten keystrokes and pull up the exact historical image.


It's Your Turn: How much of a stickler are you for accuracy in the art, fiction, and television/movies you take in? Does it make you crazy when creators get the details wrong, or are you willing to give some leeway in the name of art?



Award-winning, best-selling novelist Jennifer Uhlarik has loved the western genre since she read her first Louis L’Amour novel. She penned her first western while earning a writing degree from University of Tampa. Jennifer lives near Tampa with her husband, son, and furbabies. www.jenniferuhlarik.com



Love’s Fortress by Jennifer Uhlarik


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When Dani Sango’s art forger father passes away, Dani inherits his home. There, she finds a book of Native American drawings, which leads her to seek museum curator Brad Osgood’s help to decipher the ledger art. Why would her father have this book? Is it another forgery?


Brad Osgood longs to provide his four-year-old niece, Brynn, the safe home she desperately deserves. The last thing he needs is more drama, especially from a forger’s daughter. But when the two meet “accidentally” at St. Augustine’s 350-year-old Spanish fort, he can’t refuse the intriguing woman.


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Can Dani discover how Broken Bow and Sally Jo’s story ends and how it impacted her father’s life?

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting today, and on a very interesting topic. I am not too much of a purist in the details of movies and television shows I watch; my husband notices more of the errors if they get the wrong year car for instance. But when I read, I can tell the difference between an author who cares about authentic detail and one who is just writing a pretty story set in a time or locale they are not familiar with. I appreciate those writers who take the time to tell the readers about their research in acknowledgements and such. And I don't often like made-from-the-book movies or TV shows if I've read the books first.