Long-lost mural of George Washington found rolled up in a New Jersey basement
March 19, 2023 Updated Sun., March 19, 2023 at 8:39 p.m.
A 1921 mural of George Washington crossing the Delaware River in 1776, by George M. Harding, was recently found in a New Jersey basement, damaged but salvageable. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Annette Earling (Annette Earling/Handout)
In 2021, while wrapping up research for a book about images depicting George Washington’s 1776 crossing of the Delaware River, the historian Patricia E. Millen spotted a one-line reference to a long-forgotten painting of the fabled scene by renowned Philadelphia artist George M. Harding.
“Holy crap!” Millen remembered thinking. “A George Harding mural? I didn’t know what became of it, but I knew it was important!”
That discovery sent her down an investigative rabbit hole to locate the large painting that had once adorned the old Taylor Opera House in Trenton, N.J. Completed by Harding in 1921, the mural, titled “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” had disappeared when the building was torn down in 1971.
Millen’s book, “Washington Crossing,” co-authored with Robert W. Sands Jr., examines images of the general’s boat trip across an ice-choked river just before the pivotal Battle of Trenton in the American Revolution, including the famous – if somewhat inaccurate – paintings by Emanuel Leutze, one of which hangs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The book also focuses on the work to preserve that moment in history by two museums separated by the Delaware River: one at Washington Crossing Historic Park in Pennsylvania and one at Washington Crossing State Park in New Jersey, where Millen once served as a volunteer and a founding trustee of the Washington Crossing Park Association.
As first reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Millen was double-checking archival records of artwork and old photos when she spotted the single sentence about the missing mural in a state report. Harding’s name jumped out to her. He was a combat illustrator in both world wars and created murals for many government buildings in the 1930s. His drawings and paintings of Americans in battle were displayed in major group shows at museums, including New York’s MoMA. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts held a retrospective exhibition of his work in 1957, two years before he died.
The artist had crafted the mural to hang in the former Taylor Opera House, which was being converted into a movie and vaudeville theater in 1921. The building was originally constructed in 1867 by John Taylor, who made his fortune as founder of Taylor Pork Roll (contentiously known as Taylor ham in North Jersey and pork roll in South Jersey).
Harding’s dramatic painting showed Washington at mid-crossing in the Delaware River just prior to surprising Hessian troops in Trenton on Christmas Day 1776. The commander of the Continental Army is depicted holding his tricornered cap while standing in the middle of the boat, surrounded by soldiers and sailors fending off ice floes.
As Millen dug deeper, she learned the painting, measuring nearly 16 feet by 10 feet, was supposed to have been the centerpiece for a new museum at the New Jersey state park, which was scheduled to open for America’s Bicentennial in 1976.
Except Millen never recalled seeing the artwork at the visitor center museum when she volunteered there. “I’m getting old enough where I’m thinking, ‘Was it there and I forgot it was there?’” said the 65-year-old historian.
But Millen hadn’t forgotten. She located an old article that told what had happened: The mural was too big for the new structure, so it was never displayed there. Instead, it was rescued by volunteer conservators as the old opera house was being torn down and then stored at Ringwood State Park in New Jersey, located about 80 miles away on the New York state line.
“I contacted the park and asked if it was still there,” Millen said. “One of the historians went to the basement of a building and found it rolled up next to Christmas decorations, still on the sawhorses where it had been placed in 1971.”
Millen asked if she could see the mural but was told she couldn’t, for fear of further damaging the priceless painting. “That made me crazy,” she said with a laugh. “It’s been in the basement for over 50 years. I didn’t think I could do any more damage to it.”
Eventually, she did get to see it. A conservator was called in and carefully unrolled the artwork, which had suffered from a half-century of neglect. In addition, it had been coated with wheat paste and Japanese rice paper to preserve it, all of which must now be removed.
“There’s a little bit of mold on it,” Millen said. “I’m sure some of the pigments will have to be replaced, but the conservator said it is salvageable. It can be restored.”
The Washington Crossing Park Association is raising $60,000 to save the Harding mural, which this time will go in a new visitor center being constructed for the 250th anniversary of the nation’s founding in 2026. Designers of the structure at Washington Crossing State Park have given assurance that the painting – once viewed with pride by thousands of Trenton moviegoers – will now have a permanent home.
“As a historian, there are many things on my bucket list that I want to do,” Millen said. “Saving this mural is icing on the cake. I’m excited. I can’t wait for the new museum to open so I can see it finally displayed.”
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