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‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’ Will Be Sold at Auction

“Washington Crossing the Delaware,” a painting that portrays one of the most recognizable scenes of the American Revolution, is for sale.

Not the 21-foot canvas that takes up an entire wall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but the other one — the roughly 3½ by 5½-foot version painted at about the same time by Emanuel Leutze, a German American artist, in 1851.

It’s the first time since 1979 that the smaller version of the painting, which hung in the White House for parts of four decades, will be up for bidding and it is expected to sell for between $15 million and $20 million when it comes up for auction next month, according to Christie’s, the auction house.

“One of the reasons why ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’ has become arguably the most iconic likeness of George Washington is because it’s showing General Washington as a man of action,” said Paige Kestenman, a specialist in Christie’s American art department.

Before that, painters had depicted Washington as regal, seen off to the side, or looking down on the battlefield, she said.

“In this case, Emanuel Leutze purposely positioned Washington in the middle of the crossing, on the boat, amongst his men,” Ms. Kestenman said.

It was a powerful depiction of a pivotal battle in the Revolutionary War, which was meant to inspire 19th-century European revolutionaries and renew the patriotism of Americans back in the United States, she said.

Leutze and his assistants painted three versions of the scene while in Germany. The first one was painted in 1849, 73 years after the Battle of Trenton, when Washington led about 3,000 soldiers across the icy waters of the Delaware on Christmas Day and surprised a camp of Hessian mercenaries. The attack was a success, and boosted the morale of the Continental Army, which had suffered losses at the Battle of White Plains and Forts Washington and Lee.

The first painting remained in Germany at the Kunsthalle Bremen, a museum. That painting was destroyed when the museum was bombed during an air raid in World War II.

The other two canvases were sent to the United States after Leutze finished them in 1851. The larger canvas went to the Stuyvesant Institute in New York, where it was displayed in October 1851 under bright lights, Ms. Kestenman said.

“It became a real event,” she said. “It was like going to the theater going to see this painting.” Over the next four months, about 50,000 people paid 25 cents a ticket to see it.

The smaller painting was always privately owned, and was created so that it could be more easily reproduced by an engraver, who could then mass produce prints of the piece. In 1973 it sold for $260,000, which at the time was the most anyone had ever paid for an American painting.

Six years later, it sold for $370,000, Ms. Kestenman said. It was put on loan to the White House, where it was displayed during various administrations, according to Christie’s.

In 2015, the painting briefly hung in the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, in Winona.

Ms. Kestenman said the painting is being sold by a private seller, who does not want to be identified or discuss the auctioning of the canvas.

“I think it’s going to sell extremely well,” said John Tilford, curator of collections for the Oglethorpe University Museum of Art in Atlanta. “It really boils down to how many very wealthy people want this painting.”

It takes only two bidders competing for the piece to drive the price up, Mr. Tilford said.

The painting’s value lies not only its recognizability — it’s so familiar that it has been parodied by shows like “Veep,” “The Muppets” and “Queer Eye” — but also in Leutze’s role in its creation, Mr. Tilford said.

For decades, people believed that Eastman Johnson, an American artist who later became a founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, painted the smaller version when he worked as Leutze’s assistant.

In recent years, art experts have concluded that Leutze painted it himself, with help from Eastman, Mr. Tilford said.

“Eastman is an important artist in his own right, but you don’t want to spend $15 to $20 million on a picture that was copied by an assistant,” he said.

The painting is also significant because it showed how Leutze, who was an abolitionist, chose to emphasize different cultures.

In the boat with Washington are men in Native American or Scottish garb. Also on board is a Black man believed to be either Prince Whipple, an enslaved man who enlisted in the Contintenal Army with the promise of his freedom, or William Billy Lee, Washington’s enslaved valet and military aid.

“It was always recognized for its element of diversity and to show America as an immigrant country,” Mr. Tilford said. “I think that’s something we would do well to remember today.”

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