Restoring George Washington: New art book celebrates the opening of the Metropolitan’s new American Wing

January saw the opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new American Wing, which houses the finest and most comprehensive collection of American art in the world. Today we look at the centrepiece of this new gallery, the painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, probably one of the most famous works of American art. We also take a look at a fascinating new Met book, which recounts the acquisition and display of this beloved masterpiece as well as its recent restoration and reframing.

After much anticipation, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York) finally opened its doors to the new home of its staggering collection of American art in January this year. The New American Wing Galleries for Paintings, Sculpture, and Decorative Arts provides visitors with a rich and captivating experience of the history of American art from the eighteenth through the early twentieth century. The suite of elegant new galleries encompasses 30,000 square feet for the display of the Museum’s superb collection. The redesign also allows for a chronological installation of the American paintings and sculpture, and improved pathways connecting to adjacent areas of the building.

Twenty-one of the new galleries—including the eighteen sky-lit Joan Whitney Payson Galleries—have been created for the display the American Wing’s extraordinary collection of paintings. The Museum’s holdings are particularly rich in the works of the great masters, including John Singleton Copley (Daniel Crommelin Verplanck), Gilbert Stuart (George Washington), Thomas Cole (The Oxbow), Church (The Heart of the Andes), Winslow Homer (Prisoners from the Front), Thomas Eakins (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull) and John Singer Sargent (Madame X).

However, the centerpiece of the new installation is one of the best-known works in all of American art, Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s 1851 painting Washington Crossing the Delaware. Emanuel Leutze’s life-size work commemorates the critical moment in the American Revolution when George Washington led a surprise attack against troops supporting the British forces in Trenton, New Jersey. When Leutze created the painting in 1850, ten years after he had returned from America to his native Germany, he was hoping to rally support for the revolutionary movements then sweeping Europe. Leutze sent the work to New York in 1851, and within four months more than fifty thousand people had paid to see it.

Today, this painting is an icon of American visual culture and is one of the most beloved objects in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 2007, 110 years after its acquisition, Leutze’s masterpiece became the focus of the most ambitious conservation and reframing project in the museum’s history. For the re-hanging of this magnificent work, a large and stately gilded frame was painstakingly recreated by Eli Wilner & Company from a recently discovered photograph of the painting from 1864.

Washington Crossing The Delaware: Restoring an American Masterpiece

Washington Crossing The Delaware: Restoring an American Masterpiece

The Met’s new book Washington Crossing the Delaware: Restoring an American Masterpiece provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes account of the painting’s acquisition and display at the museum, as well as of the recent project to restore and reframe it. The book’s authors include Carrie Rebora Barratt (associate director for collections and administration at The Metropolitan Museum of Art), Lance Mayer and Gay Myers (of the Connecticut art conservation firm Mayer & Myers, who undertook the treatment of the painting), and Suzanne Smeaton and Eli Wilner (who oversaw the design and carving of the new frame at Eli Wilner & Company, New York).

Washington Crossing the Delaware is available now from Yale University Press. Click here for more books from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

More on The American Wing

Inaugurating the new rooms with a truly inspiring talk, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discusses the importance of American Art and art education. Highlighting Washington Crossing the Delaware, Clinton describes the integral role cultural institutions play in America’s position as a world leader. Afterwards, Mayor Michael Bloomberg celebrates the Met’s role in New York City.


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