Another view of famous scene

Emanuel G. Leutze's painting of Washington's crossing was the model for this engraving. A little-known black artist painted the scene well before Leutze.
Emanuel G. Leutze's painting of Washington's crossing was the model for this engraving. A little-known black artist painted the scene well before Leutze. (The Library Company of Philadelphia)
Posted: February 24, 2012

Robert Douglass Jr., a 23-year-old African American artist, was no doubt bursting with pride on Feb. 22, 1832, the centennial of George Washington's birth. On that unseasonably warm day in Philadelphia, schools and businesses closed, and the whole city turned out to celebrate. A parade of some 10,000 participants wound its way through the streets, ending at Independence Hall for ceremonies and speeches. Hanging from the building was Douglass' massive painted transparency of Washington crossing the Delaware.

This was to be Douglass' biggest audience, but only a handful of those present knew the dramatic depiction was the work of a young black Philadelphian. All the contemporary press accounts note the painting, but none mentions the artist. A receipt from the committee that organized the festivities, which is in the collection of the Library Company of Philadelphia, shows Douglass was paid $35 for the painting.

Born in 1809, Douglass was the son of Robert Douglass, a prosperous hairdresser from the West Indies who was active in the black community and the antislavery movement. Douglass' mother, Grace Bustill, was a birthright Quaker and the daughter of the freed black Quaker Cyrus Bustill, a baker who helped provision Washington's troops at Valley Forge. Douglass' sister, Sarah Mapps Douglass, followed her mother into the Society of Friends and was a noted educator who counted prominent abolitionists among her friends.

Like many in the city's black upper class, Douglass was educated in small private schools and by tutors. He may have studied painting for a time under the noted portraitist Thomas Sully. He supported his artistic efforts mainly through commercial work, including signs for businesses, and banners and parade regalia for fire companies and antislavery events.

Douglass was busy and amazingly productive for much of his life. His earliest known painting dates to 1827, and in 1834, two years after his anonymous exhibition at the Washington centennial, one of his portraits was part of an exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. After traveling in 1839 and 1840, he exhibited paintings completed in Haiti and study copies of famous works at the National Gallery in London. He also produced lithographs and became Philadelphia's first black photographer.

Nevertheless, Douglass remains largely unknown, and most of his works, including his painting of Washington's crossing, do not survive.

The American Antiquarian Society, in Massachusetts, has one surviving Douglass daguerreotype, of the abolitionist leader Abby Kelley. Two surviving paintings are in private collections, and a third was recently destroyed in a fire. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania has Douglass' lithograph of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, as well as a lithograph of the black Philadelphia musician Francis Johnson that notes it's from a daguerreotype by Douglass. Finally, the Library Company has a pen-and-ink sketch and a watercolor.

The world knows and admires the work of another black artist raised and educated in Philadelphia in the 19th century, Henry Ossawa Tanner, who is the subject of a current exhibition at the Academy of the Fine Arts. Tanner was familiar with Douglass, whose example may have inspired him to pursue his ambitions despite the racism that limited and frustrated black talent in 19th-century America. Tanner would achieve fame as an expatriate in Paris; Douglass remained in Philadelphia, and in obscurity.

But Douglass' influence may have extended further than that. Although the accounts of his painting of Washington's crossing make no mention of him, nor do they describe the work, most of us have a mental image of the scene, with Washington standing perilously in the boat as his men row through ice floes. That image was created by the German American artist Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze in 1851. In 1832, Leutze was 15 years old and living in Philadelphia. He was most likely out enjoying the festivities on Feb. 22, and he may well have seen Douglass' painting - to who knows what ultimate effect.


Phil Lapsansky is the curator of African American history at the Library Company of Philadelphia. He can be reached at phil@librarycompany.org.

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