01/19/2012 03:09 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2012

Metropolitan Museum Reopens New Painting Gallery With 'Washington Crossing The Delaware'

It was quietly dismantled at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art by staff who didn't like it, shuttled around the country for years, and held hostage in Pennsylvania by a woman who really liked it. Starting this week, Emanuel Leutze's iconic "Washington Crossing the Delaware," once the Met's redheaded stepchild, is back as a star.

Leutze's ode to the U.S. revolution now anchors the third and last addition to the museum's $100 million, 10-years-in-the-making American arts wing. It's a far cry from being kept in a small side gallery or eagerly sent on loan across the country, as it had been by the Met for more than 100 years. Since Monday, visitors can enter the New American Wing Galleries for Paintings, Sculpture and Decorative Arts -- 26 new Beaux Arts-style rooms lit by the sun -- at what wing director Morrison Heckscher calls "the 50-yard line." Leutze's painting ("the goal post") sits 150 feet west at the end of a clear sight line past high-coved rooms, made to look the way Americans would have seen it in 1864.

It wasn't always this way between the Met and its famous charge. Indeed, the museum's 48-page Leutze-centric issue of its quarterly bulletin (which visitors can and should get their hands on) reads more like a case file for a brilliant but difficult foster child than the story of a prized work of art.

From the moment Leutze's operatic panorama entered the Met's holdings in 1897 as a gift from philanthropist John Stewart Kennedy, the museum struggled with whether to display it at all. Though the painting was popular with crowds, it wasn't considered great art. It is rife with historical and physical inaccuracies (so much so, an artist was commissioned to correct it last fall). Plus the work is too large to ignore or easily get rid of. At 12 by 21 feet, the 1851 canvas could easily shade a pair of midsize Hummers parked side by side. Its surface area exceeds that of all other works in the museum's American collection, and (not unlike a Hummer's size) is both why people love it and hate it.

"It's no surprise it was a huge hit in Dallas," says Mark Thistlethwaite, a Leutze expert who teaches at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, near where the painting first appeared on loan at the 1950 Texas State Fair. "It's so dramatic -- even melodramatic. Americans by and large have always been taken with it, but it's the kind of thing the Met wasn't very keen on."

Four years before the painting was shipped to Dallas (in a lengthy process the conservator Murray Pease dubbed "the second crossing of the Delaware"), a group of irritated Met curators had taken the painting down from the walls without permission. An "anguished protest" from Pease, who knew of the difficulties of reframing such a large piece, led to Met director Francis Henry Taylor scolding his renegade staff and ordering it back up by Washington's birthday the next year, according to the bulletin.

This tension between the painting and its keepers became symbolic of the widening gap between "lowbrow" and "highbrow" camps, according to Thistlethwaite. (The painting, a favorite of editorial cartoonists, he calls "middlebrow.")

Nowhere is this disconnect more dramatic than in the story of the painting's time spent on loan near the site of Washington's actual crossing in Pennsylvania. Not only did the local parks commissioner, a fiery woman named Ann Hawkes Hutton, build a museum for the Leutze, which she believed had "come home" to its rightful place at Washington's Crossing, she threatened to never properly display it unless the Met handed rights to the painting over to her makeshift museum for good. After a series of what the bulletin calls "deceptively polite letters," and perhaps more persuasive -- threats from lawyers -- Hutton caved and the painting went back to the Met, where curators once again hemmed and hawed over how to care for their populist charge.

In 1864, before the Met existed, Leutze's portrait of Washington and his men fording the icy Delaware River was the main attraction at the New York Sanitary Fair. Even then, audiences were beginning to find the painting "out of step" and "disturbing" in the context of the Civil War, according to Jochen Wierich, a Tennessee-based curator and author of a forthcoming book on Leutze. But it brought in crowds and held a place of honor at the far end of a gallery filled with more art than had ever been displayed together in the country. The fair, a fund-raiser for Union soldiers, was the painting's last major showing before it went to the newly formed Met, along with most of the fair's other paintings. In the decades that followed, curators and visitors lost sense of how the piece might have looked at its peak. It grew dingy. The frame it was now in was "very minor," as Heckscher puts it.

When a Met staff member found a cache of old photographs, including the first anyone on staff had seen of the Leutze at the 1864 fair, the sense of the painting's original grandeur rippled through the museum. Restoring it to that state "was a no-brainer," according to Elizabeth Kornhauser, who oversaw the curation of the new American wing.

It took an independent framer 10 years to copy the gold-leaf frame that encased the Leutze at the Sanitary Fair, a project that was completed in 2010. In the meantime, the other two paintings in the photograph were brought out of the Met's collection to flank the Leutze as they once had: Frederic Church's "The Heart of the Andes," and Albert Bierstadt's "The Rocky Mountains," both standouts of 19th-century landscape painting.

Today the work is again a gallery star -- at a time when war and patriotism are once again front and center. Whether the piece will strike new audiences as "out of step" as it did then is anyone's guess. But the German-born Leutze might not find that question interesting. He conceived of the painting in the grandiose style of the Dusseldorf school not to impress his adopted country of America, but to inspire Germany to revolution. Americans, for the most part, continue to respond to the painting's overwhelming patriotism with a degree of ironic distance, according to Kornhauser, who saw it used on "The Colbert Report."

As for which visitors have taken to it without any irony over the years, in Kornhauser's observation? Why, the Germans, of course!

CLICK through a slideshow below tracking "Washington Crossing The Delaware" at the Met, before and after its transformation: