A famed painting of George Washington makes an uncredited cameo appearance in The Irishman, filmmaker Martin Scorsese’s newly released, epic saga about the mafia’s entanglement with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. A version of the iconic Emanuel Leutze canvas, Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851), hovers on a hotel room wall behind Jimmy Hoffa (played by Al Pacino) in a scene where he rages that he’s not getting enough support from the mob.
“Standing by me—what the fuck does that mean?” Hoffa yells, resolutely on his feet in the manner of Continental Army leader George Washington. “Standing by me ain’t the same as doing something.”
Hoffa’s expletive-laced tirade expresses his own desire for troops as devoted as the ones Leutze painted circling their leader, preparing to do something about the enemy Hessian army. Washington’s loyal troops are also portrayed in transit—an apt image for Hoffa, the leader of a group whose power lies in its control over transportation (“If you got it, a truck brought it,” he says earlier in the film).
Hoffa, just released from prison, wants his old Teamster union leader job back but fails to get a much-needed reelection endorsement from New York City capo, Tony Pro (Stephen Graham). Mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is dispatched to calm Hoffa down at his hotel. A few scenes later, as the mafia’s feelings have shifted, Sheeran is sent back to Hoffa’s hotel to convince the ex-leader to retire.
The set for these scenes was built from scratch for The Irishman, and designed to look like a standard 1970s hotel suite in Washington, D.C. “We kept it very traditional, classic, and presidential,” set decorator Regina Graves told Architectural Digest, “with a George Washington painting hanging over the bed.”
Washington Crossing the Delaware is one of multiple versions that Leutze painted of Washington’s dicey attack on the German mercenary army in Trenton on December 25, 1776. It became a viral image almost immediately, with many studies and copies made after it. Contemporary artists have also found it a fruitful painting to sample and remix; consider George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page From An American History Textbook (1975) by Robert Colescott, currently on view at the Colescott retrospective at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati.
This is also not the first time Leutze’s masterpiece has made it to Hollywood. Washington Crossing the Delaware appeared last year in Ocean’s 8, the all-women reboot of the popular heist film trilogy starring George Clooney and Brad Pitt. In a scene where Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) cases the security system at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she installs a parody version of the wall-sized canvas alongside the original in the American Wing. Ocean’s version, titled Our Founding Mothers, is a feminist remake of the famously masculine original.
Leutze’s George Washington has morphed into a chameleonic everyman, representing a democratic cast of characters ranging from African-American scientists to feminist activists and, with The Irishman, a Teamster union leader. The artist would likely be surprised, and hopefully delighted, by how far his subject has sailed.
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