In late 1776, the Continental Army was demoralized after a series of defeats by the British. With the enemy in pursuit, George Washington planned a bold maneuver dependent on the element of surprise to unseat the British at Trenton. On Christmas, 1776, Washington devised an attack, although he did not plan for a northeastern storm. The weather prevented two of the three forces from crossing the river, but through the night, the third force, including Washington, managed to cross despite the rain, snow, ice and wind, an event immortalized in Emmanuel Leutze's heroic painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware, of 1851 (The Metropolitan Museum, New York). After winning the battles at Trenton and Princeton, this crossing proved to be the psychological turning point to end the Revolutionary War.
By 1859, when J.H.R. Jontinel painted the present version of Washington Crossing the Delaware, Leutze's painting would have already been well known, as it was shown in New York and Washington, D.C. while engravings were also produced and distributed by 1853. Jontinel's depiction of the subject is certainly a result of the influence of Leutze's masterwork. Although Jontinel may have had access to the original painting while it was touring in the United States, it is more likely that the artist only saw an engraving of the work. In Jontinel's version, the artist has chosen to change the perspective of Leutze's painting slightly, incorporating more space between the viewer and Washington's boat. This continues as the distance between each of the subsequent boats becomes more significant for a clearer view of the passengers. This revised composition allowed Jontinel to show a more significant area of coastline on each side of the river and develop his icebergs into solid obstacles for the forces attempting to cross the river. The dramatic and luminous light effects in the sky, which Jontinel used to escalate the theatrical nature of the story, further highlight these changes.
Jontinel's interpretation of the story, its characters and the confidence with which the paint was applied to the board, represent a skilled artisan with a deep understanding of his subject. The present work is an extraordinary piece of American history and a tribute to one of America's most celebrated paintings.