Point of view

A masterpiece's Carolina connection

March 26, 2011 

— On a recent visit to Boston and the Museum of Fine Arts' new Art of the Americas wing, I saw the spectacular masterpiece of Thomas Sully, "The Passage of the Delaware." The curator gave a lecture on the historical accuracy of the painting. We also learned the stunning fact that the painting was originally commissioned by the State of North Carolina to hang in its Senate Chamber.

The finished picture, dating to 1819, turned out to be too large (at 17 feet by 21 feet) for that space. So Sully kept it for himself. He then sold it to John Doggett, a wealthy Boston frame maker, in 1833. The painting subsequently made its way to the Museum of Fine Arts in 1903. There it remained rolled up in storage for more than a century until it was put on view with its enormous gilded frame for the first time in November, where it is hung with the rest of the permanent collection in the Art of the Americas wing.

The history of this most accurate painting has stirred up enormous passion and fantasy that I feel ought to be shared with fellow North Carolinians. The painting was conceived and commissioned by North Carolina. It ought find its way back here and become a permanent addition to N.C. Museum of Art.

There are many paintings of George Washington and his troops crossing the Delaware. The most famous is the one painted by Emmanuel Leutze, a German immigrant. One critique calls it "more stirring patriotic icon than accurate depiction." Leutze's picture has been ridiculed for its inaccuracies. It shows a flag that was not adopted until 1777, while the crossing occurred in 1776. Other inaccuracies of Leutze include huge freight boats transporting the horses and cannon, while Durham boats, used to transport pig iron from the Durham Iron Works to Philadelphia, actually carried the troops.

Sully's painting is historically accurate, reproduced from the exact site of Washington's crossing.

Sully loved America. He was born in England, in 1783. He and his family emigrated to Charleston, S.C., in 1792. Both his parents were actors, and he performed as a child. His father apprenticed Tom to an insurance broker, who soon complained that Tom was using too much paper painting and drawing. That was the beginning of his journey as a painter and portrait artist.

Gen. George Washington's bold crossing of the Delaware and capture of a Hessian force at Trenton saved the American Revolution. This is one more reason why this painting should be purchased and brought back to our beloved state.

Assad Meymandi is a psychiatrist and philanthropist who lives in Raleigh. As a historical footnote, the original North Carolina State House, in which the Sully painting would have hung, was destroyed by fire in 1831.

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