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Arguably one of the most important and most recognizable paintings in U.S. history – Washington Crossing the Delaware – could bring as much as $20 million when it hits the auction block May 12 at Christie’s.

The 1851 painting by Emanuel Leutze hung in the White House from the 1970s to 2014. It is one of three versions painted by Leutze, famously capturing the moment when General George Washington boldly led his troops across the half-frozen Delaware River to Trenton, New Jersey on Christmas night 1776.

Washington Crossing the Delaware

'Washington Crossing The Delaware' by Emanuel Leutze.

The success of Washington’s surprise attack on a camp of Hessian mercenaries hired by England changed the course of the Revolutionary War and the history of our nation.

Leutze began painting the first version of Washington Crossing the Delaware in 1849 — 73 years after the Revolutionary War battle depicted in his work. One version of the painting was destroyed during World War II air raid while a second forms the centerpiece in the American Wing of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The painting at the Met is enormous, measuring 12.4 x 21.25 feet.

The painting up for sale in May is smaller – about 3 x 6 feet – and had been on loan to the Minnesota Marine Art Museum. The owner of the painting remains anonymous.

Emanuel Leutze

Work by artist Emanuel Leutze was known for its patriotic romanticism, with 'Washington Crossing The Delaware' as a prime example.

Since its earliest debut, Leutze’s vision has inspired such superlatives as “incomparably the best painting yet executed for an American subject” (Literary World) and “the grandest, most majestic and most effective painting ever exhibited in America.” (New York Evening Mirror) Ubiquitous in popular culture ever since, Washington Crossing the Delaware firmly remains among the most iconic images of the 20th and 21st centuries — instantly recognizable, endlessly reinterpreted and a timeless symbol of an American hero.

When installed on long-term loan in 1979, White House Curator Clement Conger said the  work was among “the most important American paintings ever to hang in the White House.” (Washington Post, May 19, 1979)

Pre-auction estimates for the painting range between $15-$20 million, Christie’s said. The sale is part of auction house’s 20th Century Evening Sale.

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