Shimomura Crossing the Delaware

Part pop art, part Japanese wood print, and part history painting, Roger Shimomura’s Crossing the Delaware represents an American masterpiece in the truest sense.

The original Washington Crossing the Delware was painted by Emanuel Leutze in 1851. This iconic image is in every history book in every high school in this country. The Delaware state collectible quarter even has an engraved version of it on the back. It’s basically as ‘Merican as apple pie.

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze (1851)

Grand history paintings are well and good, but this one feels ripe for some 21st century disruption. Enter, Roger Shimomura. In the vein of Campbell’s soups and Marilyn Monroe, Shimomura uses pop art to subvert this slice of American identity.

As an Japanese-America veteran and internment camp survivor Roger Shimomura has some thoughts on the American experience. Much of his incredible art explores the paradoxes, complexities, and ironies of being Japanese-American and American culture.

Shimomoura takes inspiration from the classical Japanese artist, Katsushika Hokusai. For those who believe they are unfamiliar with Hokusai, take a second look at your iphone’s wave emoji.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai (1830-1832)
The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai (1830-1832)

The flat perspective of the figures in Shimomura Crossing the Delaware mirrors traditional Japanese approach to composition. The rowers in the boat ditch the 17th century Yankee uniform for traditional Japanese style kimonos. American Pop Art is also at play. The strong lines and repeating patterns in the waves call to mind Lichtenstein ben-dots.

Shimomura loved comic books and his painting has the feel of a graphic novel. The image plays out across three canvases but Shimomura doesn’t hide the lines where they meet. It’s like a triptych, or a Japanese silk screen, or the grids from a comic book.

Shimomura has also lifted the scene from the snowy waterways of the East Coast to the San Francisco Bay. These furiously paddling fellows are no longer staging a midnight getaway to escape the red coats. Instead, they parallel the journey of immigrants crossing from Angel Island to enter America.

At the center of the painting, Shimomura stands dressed in a colonial blue and white uniform, the American flag behind him. He’s in the shoes of George Washington but in a scene lifted from Japanese painting.

American art’s defining attribute is, to the extent that it has any defining attributes at all, the unending pursuit of its own identity. Roger Shimomura comes pretty close to that elusive notion. His stew of artistic references would be incomprehensible in any other country but taken together it communicates the multitudes and complexity of American experience.


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