Flip a coin, leaf through an American history textbook, or stroll through Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective and you’ll notice a common thread: George Washington. The image of the first commander-in-chief crossing the Delaware River with steely determination is an indelible image that has been in heavy rotation in the U.S. for over two centuries. Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s iconic 1851 painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware, is as American as apple pie and the visage of Mr. Washington has proved irresistible to other artists looking to explore the storied past of our first president (most notably Grant Wood and Larry Rivers).
Roy Lichtenstein was similarly compelled to make historical references to American art: two works in Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective illuminate the very different stylistic approaches Lichtenstein pursued during his long career. Washington Crossing the Delaware I (c. 1951), created one century after Leutze’s, is rendered in the style of abstract expressionism. The image that really caught my eye, George Washington (1962), was created a decade after Washington Crossing the Delaware (c. 1951) and features a portrait of POTUS #1 brimming with Lichtenstein’s now-trademark dots in black and white. It’s perhaps a bit surprising that he chose to paint a stoic statesman around the same time he was painting Mickey Mouse and scenes of 1960s American domesticity, but when I walk through the galleries I’m drawn in by all of Lichtenstein’s early Pop works because of their familiar and approachable subject matter. Once I lean in for a closer look, the subject matter stands aside and the meticulously placed dots, lines, and brushstrokes steal the show.
For a closer look at Roy Lichtenstein’s artistic process, check out this interactive slider that lets you compare George Washington (1962) with the preparatory drawing.