A massive painting by German American artist Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze (1816-1868) has hung unknown to the outside world in an eastern Pennsylvania Masonic lodge almost since the day it was painted in the 1840s, and has just recently been discovered by the art community. Leutze is best known today for his iconic image of Washington Crossing the Delaware, and he was often attracted to patriotic subjects about America. But this newly highlighted painting has a Old Testament biblical subject: Departure of the Israelites (1845-6) depicts a pivotal scene from Exodus of the Hebrews leaving Egypt, led by Moses.
From an article by art historian Christine Oaklander on the Maine Antique Digest website:
I learned about the painting in 2001, when I moved to the area to direct the curatorial department of a regional museum, and was particularly intrigued because I had prepared a paper about Leutze just a few years earlier in a graduate seminar on “American Grand Manner Painting.” Viewing the painting, hanging in a dark stairwell in the temple, I was excited to be the first in my field of expertise to see it and was astonished at its sheer size. I quickly spotted an inscription at the lower right with the artist’s signature, city of residence, and a date from the 1840s—the last numeral being a 5 or 6.
Barbara Groseclose’s book and catalogue raisonné on Leutze neither mentioned nor listed the painting. I immediately (and in hindsight somewhat naively) hatched a plot to move this Leutze painting to my museum for exhibition and to publish it as a rediscovery in American art. The Masons denied my request, because the terms of the gift stipulated that the painting should remain at the lodge in perpetuity.
Recently, a significant change in the lodge’s status caused the painting’s removal from the wall, enabling me to inspect it in full light at close range and to have it photographed 15 years after my initial viewing.
When I first viewed the painting, I had noticed a clipping affixed to the wall nearby that seemed to reveal the history of its creation, exhibition, and ownership: “When the artist, one of the most celebrated America has produced, was growing in the public estimation, he desired to complete his study in Dusseldorf. Being poor and struggling, at the suggestion of Brother [John] Skirving (the father-in-law of Rufus A. Grider) he painted this large picture for exhibition, which realized a sufficiency to enable the young artist to complete his studies…. In the year 1854 or 1855, Brother Skirving [said to Brother Wetherill] ‘I have a picture rolled up and stored in the Patent Office at Washington that would be very appropriate in the west end of the room. It portrays Moses and Aaron marshalling the host out of Egypt.’ Brother Wetherill, having seen the picture while on exhibition, bought it from Brother Skirving and it has hung in the lodge since that time. Brother Wetherill knew Emanuel Leutze in Philadelphia in 1830 before his earliest successful pictures were painted….
I found that in April 1861 he had exhibited a painting titled Departure of the Israelites in New York City. A scan of one or two New York City newspapers yielded no reviews of the exhibition, probably because all eyes were turned toward the firing on Fort Sumter and outbreak of the Civil War.
One possibility is that Leutze made two versions of the painting—a smaller one exhibited in Philadelphia and then this much larger one in Dusseldorf. Several pieces of evidence support this scenario. First, Leutze is known to have created smaller paintings that he later expanded to large exhibition-scale versions or even murals, including ones for Washington Crossing the Delaware, Washington at Monmouth, and Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way. Second, in the late 1850s when John Skirving was working on a project with Philadelphia artists Christian Schuessele and John Sartain to paint and engrave a picture devoted to inventors of the age, titled Men of Progress, he had Schuessele paint a small version of the picture, which he kept for his personal collection, and a larger version, which was intended for public exhibition and reproduction as a print. Even if there were two Leutze versions of Departure of the Israelites, this does not explain the disparity in the Masonic account that the painting exhibited in Philadelphia in 1840 is the same one displayed for decades in the Masonic lodge.
Regardless of its origins, it is important to realize that Leutze’s painting is an exact copy of an engraving after an 1829 oil on canvas by the prominent Scottish artist David Roberts (1796-1864). I did not discover this until 2011, when I had a second opportunity to view the painting and conducted more extensive research and found the listing cited above that provided key information about Roberts’s painting. A celebrated painting from when it was first publicly exhibited in 1829, Departure of the Israelites was a forerunner to Roberts’s paintings of scenes in Egypt, which were reproduced as a set of lithographs available by subscription and are still sought after today by collectors.
Roberts’s original, which at 51" x 72" is smaller than Leutze’s copy, launched his career as an Orientalist painter and helped Roberts win a signal recognition—election to membership in the Royal Academy.
Keep in mind that in the 1800s, it was common practice for an American collector who admired a painting by a European artist (usually a Renaissance or Baroque masterpiece owned by a museum) to commission an artist to copy it and then to display it proudly in his home. Additionally, engravings or etchings made after famous paintings were popular during the Victorian era and were a popular source for artists painting copies. Hence, for Skirving to commission Leutze’s copy of the Roberts masterpiece was entirely in keeping with customs of the day, and furthermore, it expressed his keen powers of aesthetic discrimination as well as his generosity as an arts patron.
It is unclear what lies in the future for this rediscovered monumental canvas. As a copy, it does not have the value of a large original by Leutze, which might be worth a sum in the six figures. Furthermore, the condition is such that many hours of professional conservation would be required before the painting could be successfully preserved and exhibited. Nonetheless, as a historian of American art, I hope that Departure of the Israelites will be properly cared for and even returned to public view, not only as a passage in the life story of one of our leading American artists, but as part of the heritage of a Masonic lodge founded in the 1800s by distinguished artists, scientists, and industrialists. At the very least, this article will serve as a permanent record of the painting for posterity.
For security reasons, the Masons requested that I keep the painting’s precise location private. I appreciate their granting me access to the painting and permission to publish this article.
Leutze was not a Freemason as far as anyone has been able to discover, either while he was in the United States, or in Germany, but he is most known to Masons for his massive portrait of George Washington as a Master Mason that is now displayed at the Scottish Rite NMJ's Museum in Lexington, MA. (The painting was originally acquired for the Detroit Masonic Center, and a copy hangs there on the first floor today.)