What Surrounds a Legend? A 3,000-Pound Gilt Frame

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By Glenn Collins

"Washington Crossing the Delaware," by Emanuel Leutze, is in the Met's American Wing.

One of the most complex restoration and reframing projects in the history of the Metropolitan Museum of Art has collided with a 9-foot-3-inch-high doorway. The doorway won. That is because the heroic and stupendously popular 1851 "Washington Crossing the Delaware," familiar to generations of schoolchildren, is one of the largest paintings in the museum, measuring 21 feet wide and 12 feet high.

It is heavy too, and will be getting heavier, because curators are currently assessing the best way to carve an elaborate new 3,000-pound basswood frame that would replicate the original, missing for more than a century. After years of detective work, an image of the frame was recently discovered in a 143-year-old Mathew Brady photograph.

Since the canvas cannot be removed through the doorway of its home on the second floor of the museum's American Wing, its years-long refurbishment will be carried out within the gallery. And an entire new suite of galleries for American paintings and sculpture – scheduled to open in 2010 as the finale of the American Wing renovations – must be built around "Washington Crossing the Delaware." The challenge is reminiscent of the construction of the Hayden Planetarium around the 15.5-ton Willamette Meteorite in 1935, a feat repeated in 2000 when the $210 million Rose Center for Earth and Space was built around that same artifact. "It's like the boat that was built in the basement," said Carrie Rebora Barratt, curator of the frame restoration project, who is manager of the Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art at the museum. "But this is the centerpiece of the American collections."

The monumental work by Emanuel Leutze is ranked among the top five artworks in the museum's visitor-popularity surveys. It is believed that the painting was rolled up to make its original trip to the museum, as it was to fit into its current space for the 1980 opening of the American Wing. The potential for damage prevents the canvas from being rolled now. The scale of the painting's conservation and reframing, which is to begin later this year, "is unprecedented in the history of the museum, to my knowledge," Dr. Barratt said. "But it is still very much a research project."

She explained that conservators are refining a plan to remove layers of varnish for the painting's first surface-cleaning in decades. Currently the image is yellowish; at places in the blue sky clots of dirt and debris suggest a nonexistent flock of birds. And the prophetic morning star above Washington is barely visible. Meanwhile, in Long Island City, Queens, a master woodcarver, Félix Terán, has completed a two-foot-long test carving of the frame's elaborate eagle crest from blowups of the Brady photograph. Working in the 11,000-foot studio space of Eli Wilner & Company, a former eggroll factory, Mr. Terán created the mockup to test the depth of sculptural relief and the placement of the frame's embellishments. "It's a challenge to carve, since there isn't a whole lot of detail in the blowup," said Mr. Terán, who was born into a family of woodcarvers in a town of woodcarvers, San Antonia de Ibarra, in Ecuador. Nevertheless the image of the frame has now been digitized, and Eli Wilner – a Manhattan antique-frame dealer whose artisans have made replicas for the Met, the Smithsonian and the White House – expects to be able to discern details "within an eighth of an inch," he said.

The painting, with its life-size figures, "is one of the most frequently reproduced images in American culture," said David Hackett Fischer, Warren professor of history at Brandeis University and author of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Washington's Crossing." Leutze's highly romanticized rendition captures a desperate effort, a turning point in American history, when on Christmas night in 1776 George Washington crossed the Delaware River with 2,500 troops in a surprise attack on Hessian soldiers. "The crossing was a pivot point in a crucial campaign that rescued the revolution from failure," Professor Fischer said, adding that it burnished not only Washington's reputation as a leader, but also brought foreign support for the rebels' cause. Through the centuries the painting has been criticized aesthetically and for historical shortcomings. (The design of the fluttering American flag, for example, was not yet in use.) "You can add one inaccuracy to another, but Leutze understood the air of desperation, the small scale of the event and the very large meaning," Professor Fischer said. "He got all of that right."

Leutze, a German who arrived in America at the age of 9, returned to Europe 16 years later to further his artistic career and painted canvases celebrating democracy and the love of liberty. After he created the Washington painting in Düsseldorf, he rolled it up and presented it to the public in New York on Oct. 29, 1851. It was an immediate sensation, and within four months some 50,000 people had paid to see the painting before it was bought for $10,000 by a collector, Marshall O. Roberts.

The painting created another stir when it was presented at the April 1864 Art Exhibition at the Metropolitan Fair in Aid of the United States Sanitary Commission, a benefit for Union soldiers. The image was widely distributed in Europe, and in America it has adorned postcards, postage stamps and coffee mugs. Currier and Ives issued an altered unauthorized version, Professor Fischer said. By the time another collector, John Stuart Kennedy, bought and donated the painting to the Met in 1897, the work had been reframed in a less ornate style, clearly depicted in museum photos from 1899 and 1912. By 1918 it had acquired the plain frame it currently inhabits, believed to be its third. Less than a year ago Dr. Barratt, while studying an 1864 album of Brady's Art Exhibition photographs in the collection of the New-York Historical Society, noticed an image of the Leutze painting in a dramatic gilded frame dominated by a 12-foot-wide American-eagle crest at the top.

On a ribbon under the eagle, barely discernible even at high magnification, were the words of Henry Lee, Washington's 1799 eulogist: "First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen." "It took my breath away," Dr. Barratt said.

The frame "is a tour de force, absolutely the most creative and involved surround for a painting that I have ever seen," Mr. Wilner, the frame expert, said.

It is believed to have been destroyed, but researchers continue to search the photographic record and are studying military iconography and the coinage of the mid-19th century, as well as the styles of carvers, to better reproduce the original design. After its conservation the painting is likely to be installed first, attached to steel beams embedded in a grand room of the new galleries, which are to be named after the late collector Peter Jay Sharp, whose foundation is a major contributor. Then the frame will be placed around the canvas, attached to the wall separately.

Gilding such an enormous frame will require more than 12,500 3.5-inch square sheets of gold leaves, 1/250,000th of an inch thick, at a cost of more than $12,000. The Met would not estimate the cost of the total refurbishment, as research and planning are still under way. But some experts said the project could not be accomplished for less than $500,000. "It's an experiment," Dr. Barratt said of the frame restoration process. "How close can we get to the original from the photograph, and what is our responsibility to the original when we aren't sure about the level of detail?"