“You can’t waste God’s gift, can you?” Was what she said.
Though born in Boston, I spent most of my childhood years in Japan, returning to U.S. as a thirteen year old. In Lincoln Middle School (now a police building) located in the center of New Providence, N.J., my journey back to the U.S. began. Although I had American citizenship, my English was very limited.
My English teacher, Mrs. S, somehow found out that I was good at drawing, so she decided that I would work on a bulletin board project rather than sitting through an almost incomprehensible class.
She gave me magic markers and asked me to copy paintings that related to the particular themes being discussed in class. One of these works she gave me to copy was Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware.
By drawing this painting, I did not realize I would be literally drawing out my life’s calling.
For a budding artist, Leutze’s work is a wonderful introduction to the artistry of painting; and copying a master work is one of the best ways to learn to paint and learn to see. This particular work has dramatic visual tension built in, with compositional elements made up of triangles and parallelograms, creating both movement and action. Copying it, though, I discovered that the painting had hidden features, and visual structure that I could not capture with magic markers. I remember also struggling to capture George Washington’s distinct nose and facial expression. I did the best I could with the materials given, and the experience remains fresh in my mind; I can still smell the markers even as I speak today.
I must have done a fairly decent job of it, because Mrs. S brought in other teachers to see it. I could tell she was proud of the work I had done. One day, she brought a friend who was a substitute teacher and showed my work off to her. I did not know this substitute teacher, and I do not recall ever meeting her again. After examining the work, she turned to me and said:
“You can’t waste God’s gift. Can you?”
I remember her face, her countenance, even to this day.
Was my art a gift? Did I have a gift from God? Who is this God? Am I not to waste God’s gift?
At that moment, what she said to me seemed perfectly reasonable. I knew early on that art was a gift. Even as a young child, I sensed that art was my calling, and whenever I painted or drew, I felt some force go through me that was not mine. I knew that this was a gift. So on that day, what this substitute teacher said made sense to me.
But it took me many years after that to find out who was the source of this calling.
I sat in a museum in Puerto Rico as a member of the National Council on the Arts member, I found myself representing the United States Arts Agencies. I had a unique opportunity to reflect again on this substitute teacher’s words, due to a surprising confluence of events, all surrounding this Leutze painting, a painting that reshaped my life.
I was listening to a report on a project called “Picturing America.” The head of National Endowment for the Humanities, Bruce Cole, was making the presentation. He spoke of Leutze’s painting as a particular focus of the “Picturing America” project. He said, “Young Americans no longer know of the history of our nation, nor paintings that help to tell the story.” Bruce said these iconic masterworks no longer appear in text books, so young students no longer have access to the works. I knew what the painting was about visually, because of my experience of copying the masterpiece. Of course, the story of George Washington crossing the Delaware on Christmas day in 1776, as a last-gasp effort to save the revolution, is well known, but I must confess that I did not know the background to Leutze’s version of his story until I read and heard from Bruce during his Picturing America report.
Bruce reminded us that the Washington Crossing the Delaware painting was being restored at that time. (It is now in the American wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It stands eleven by twenty-one feet, and the restored gilded frame, a masterwork worth seeing in itself, surrounds it. I hope that all of you will get to the American Wing of the Met to see the actual painting. It is an extraordinary experience to see it; there are details and theatrical drama that you cannot behold even in a good reproduction.)
Bruce noted that the greatest criticism of this painting has been the “inaccuracies” of the details, and the embellishment of the drama. The American flag, critics note, had not yet been created at the time of the crossing; the river does not look anything like the Delaware, either. In recent times, because of these critiques, the painting has been removed from many American history text books.
Even as a middle school child, I knew, copying the painting, that I was depicting a fictionalized re-telling. Art does not capture reality as a whole, but carefully selects and re-tells, and re-presents; even a photograph can only capture one perspective of reality. An artist knows that paint can reveal a story through the limitation of the medium, and it is in understanding how to create within the boundaries of those limitations that a masterpiece is made. Any historical accounting, as good historians will tell us, is also a re-telling from the vantage point of that historian’s perspective.
So in the re-telling, what makes this art a masterpiece? Further, why would I want to tell you about this painting and the artist Emanuel Leutze as a graduation message to you?
Through the Picturing America project, I discovered is a story of art that is worth telling, as an inspirational “north star” for you as you cross your river this graduation morning, journeying into the future unknown.
Here’s that background story that the pundits do not know or understood. Leutze was not an American painter. He was born in Germany. But he did spend years of his childhood in America, in Philadelphia. When he was 13, his father became ill, and as his father lay dying, he had the unfortunate duty of being assigned to be by the deathbed. Having not much to do except to watch his father slowly fade away, the 13-year-old Emanuel sat by the bedside and began to sketch his father’s face. By depicting the death of a loved one, Emanuel found his life’s calling.
A year later, in order to support himself and his family, he painted portraits for $5 apiece. He later received formal education from John Rubens Smith, a portrait painter in Philadelphia. .
Here’s what Bruce Cole says about the painting in Picturing America:
In Emanuel Leutze’s painting, the commander of the Continental Army against Great Britain stands boldly near the prow of a crowded boat and navigates the treacherous Delaware River on Christmas night, 1776. The Declaration of Independence had been signed earlier that year in the summer heat of Philadelphia, and through the sobering autumn months General Washington led an army of dwindling numbers, with defeats mounting and morale sinking.
Barrymore Lawrence Scherer, who writes for the Wall Street Journal, expands this scene:
At Trenton, N.J., was garrisoned a large force of Hessian mercenaries paid by Britain. Washington decided upon a surprise attack. First he needed to get his troops across the Delaware River, from McConkey’s Ferry, Pennsylvania, to Johnson’s Ferry, New Jersey, during the freezing night of Dec. 25 and 26. Beginning about sundown, a small flotilla of cargo boats plied the ice-choked waters through the night until 2,400 troops had been ferried across for the march to Trenton. There, in the early hours of the morning, the Continental forces surprised the sleeping garrison and, after a brief but fierce engagement, captured nearly two-thirds of the Hessians. This victory saved the Revolution by raising the morale of the Continental troops and attracting new enlistments.
And he speaks of what happened to Leutze:
In 1841 he returned to Germany, enrolling in the Royal Art Academy in Düsseldorf, where he eventually became a professor. In 1848, Leutze was inspired to pay tribute to the spirit of independence by parallels in German current events. That year, revolutions had spread throughout Europe. In the German Confederation, liberal factions had hoped to overthrow the conservative thrones to create a unified German nation. They failed, but out of political defeat rose an artistic triumph.
So Leutze painted this image as a bi-cultural artist, depicting objectively what American democracy can mean to an outsider. The painting was never meant to be simply a historical account; he needed to depict not only Washington crossing as a historical reality, but to capture the very essence and ideal of democracy itself.
What Leutze wanted to convey to his friends was a picture of America led by destiny and extraordinary leadership, with a diverse coalition of unlikely heroes gathered together in a boat cast into the icy waves.
Now, look with me at the painting, and into the boat…
Notice who is in the boat. Of course there is George Washington, and his aide, Col. James Monroe, is by his side. But at the front and the back of the boat are two figures wearing buckskin trousers and moccasins, of a Native American heritage. In front of George Washington is a African American, and next to him is a man in a Scottish bonnet: and many suspect that the person rowing the boat in red seems to be a woman.
Leutze was depicting a picture of America. As a visual way to incarnate the American ideal to his homeland in Germany, he intentionally did not paint the Delaware. No, he was in Germany. The river is the Rhine!
Refracting in the American Hall of the Metropolitan Museum today is an iconic work of a German artist, a foreigner’s painting of a land and image far away, recalling an evening that answered a call to destiny. It was not created by a local patriot painting a nationalistic image, but by an outsider peering in, much in the way that Alexis de Tocqueville reimagined America’s goodness as a Frenchman in 1835, with words which resonate today, even in this cynical 21st century America:.
“America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” (Alexis de Tocqueville)
That day in Puerto Rico, after Bruce Cole told us of the historic background to this painting, I had to raise my hand. I shared this:
“Bruce, I found it remarkable that I am sitting here with you to represent the United States of America, and our journey to advocate for arts and culture; what you told of this painting is so meaningful to me because I am an artist partly because of this painting.”
I told the group about my experience copying this masterpiece, and what I learned by doing so…and what my substitute teacher told me.
“You can’t waste God’s gift.”
I told the members of the gathering that these words and the painting illumined my heart as many years later I stood over another river, Twin Rivers of Tamagawa on the outskirts of Tokyo. I had just become a Christian through the influence of my wife, the church she was attending, and re-reading of William Blake that I had studied in college.
I thanked Bruce for his work in bringing this masterpiece, once again, to influence countless youths who will use the Picturing America materials. You never know what a painting, or an encouraging word by a substitute teacher, can do to shape a young person’s life. We live in a country, and the world, where it is still possible for that to happen.
The American promise and her experiment continues, and it is still a gift. It is a gift of entrepreneurship, and the courage to create a “new wine skin,” and it is a story of independence and leadership. The fact that we can enjoy this day, just a few miles away from where Washington dared to take his troops across, is a testament to the movement of destiny, and to the individual choices and faith that guided such decisions.
You, Cairn students, represent the future that Washington fought to create.
You are the embodiment of an ideal that Leutze tried so desperately to depict, despite the failures of democracy in his own land.
“You can’t waste God’s gift.”
I was thirteen when I heard those words, just as Emanuel Leutze was when he drew his dying father and discovered his gift. You will be given many opportunities in your life to re-shape someone else’s life, perhaps even the life of a thirteen-year-old boy who struggles with his English. Do not take those moments for granted. Use the gift that God gave you to the fullest. Be filled with faith. Your education and your experience here at Cairn, are markers that guide the path uniquely paved for you. Be confident of that journey.
George Washington faced the tyranny of oppression and the imposition of an old system. Today, we, too, face similar oppression and imposition of an old system, but in our case it is icy remains of the industrial age that is behind us: the ice chunks floating in the river called utilitarian pragmatism. Utilitarian pragmatism is the type of thinking that constructs the point of education only to be to train us to survive in a materialist universe, as if the future is predetermined by our limited resources. In other words, you are only valuable as your usefulness to society. When we think like that we can only see grey skies of fear all about us, and it does not reflect the Biblical path of valuing all people as made in the Image of God. Utilitarian pragmatism can speak even in a graduation day; “well, your dreams, and your art, what you call the beautiful may be nice to think about, but now you are going to face a ‘real world’. You are going to have to buckle up and be an adult about it all.”
My friends, if George Washington thought that way, we would not be here today at all.
Washington, too, faced the “real world” head on, but he also dreamt of another. Emanuel Leutze wanted to paint America filled with opportunities, not a world that is facing her deathbed. In other words, he did not want to depict a world that is dying, but a world that is about to be birthed.
This painting is generative. From every visual angle, every figure depicted points to an infinitely vast universe in which imagination and dreams meet the daunting challenge of any age, of any culture, of any country.
Today, it is your dreams and your art that can break open the thick, stubborn ice of utilitarian pragmatism, and the cynical nay-sayers our time, clogging up the river of joy-filled progress.
Today is a genesis moment. Every life of a graduate can become God’s artwork. This moment, though at the end of your time at here Cairn, is a fresh start to a new adventure-unknown yet hoped for-perhaps thought to be impossible by some, yet earned and yearned for.
Scherer writes also of that world:
Leutze framed both Washington’s and Monroe’s heads and the beautifully painted flag against the radiant background of his dawning sky. In addition to highlighting the composition’s climactic passage, its symbolism is apparent: Washington and his men move toward the light of hope, guided by the morning star-which, given the Christmas connection, suggests the Star of Bethlehem.
What I noticed as a young artist was that the painting does not work in the normative way. There is something unusual, even strange, about the perspectives. What I did not know when I was copying the work at 13 was that Leutze’s first painting of this scene was destroyed in a fire. What we see at the Met is the second painting, one that was slightly altered in perspective.
I did not know about that fire. A fire can destroy, but a fire can also sanctify.
Notice Washington’s face. Originally the face looked ahead toward the vista, toward the unknown, and the clouds opened above, and there was no north star. In his second rendition, Leutze changed the horizon slightly to make a miracle happen in the painting, and added the north star. The artistic miracle is this: Washington’s gaze is simultaneously BOTH toward the horizon AND to the north star.
As you face the unknown horizon of your own on this graduation day, I encourage you to have this dual perspective also; and to do what Washington’s visage does, somewhat miraculously because of the limited two dimension space of a painting. You can look straight into your challenges, and fears, and even into what seems to be a dark abyss at the edge of the world; you can face the impossible and, at the same time, look also at the north star, the Star of Bethlehem.
We must do so, faced with the incalculable challenges of our days. We have no choice.
We may feel in our bones the cold winter wind as George Washington did, guiding a rag-tag team of revolutionaries, many of them young, untrained farmers and craftsmen. We may be severely limited in resources. We may not even have an iconic flag, even though this university has a new name on this centennial.
Our existence is certainly fragile, and the river you cross may be frozen and dangerous. But George Washington’s resolute face reveals a man who believed that destiny could still guide, and his leadership revealed a man who understood not only military strategy, but also the art if leadership-the art of creating so many iconic moments in history, even through failures, that will be etched into the hearts of all those who seek freedom.
“You can’t waste God’s gift.”
George Washington did not. Emanuel Leutze did not. As they walked, and lead, “a different path.”
May Christ, “the author and perfecter of your faith,” guide you to cultivate your gifts, and may God show you that north star. May the Spirit Creator reveal your destiny, and lead you into the freedom of the unknown.