February 22, 2023

Washington Crossing River Painting Discovery Will Enhance New State Park Visitors Center

“BURIED TREASURE”: Washington Crossing Park Association trustees, with art conservator Christyl Cusworth, third from left, assess the 15.5-foot by 9.8-foot mural, in need of restoration and repair. They are looking forward to the restoration of the mural and placing it in the new visitors center, scheduled to open in 2026.

By Wendy Greenberg

It’s a “true New Jersey story,” says the executive director of the Washington Crossing Park Association of the recent discovery of an important work of art.

A long-forgotten painting depicting George Washington crossing the Delaware River was located in a basement after more than 50 years. The crossing represents a key point in history: After crossing the Delaware on December 25, 1776, Washington embarked on a 10-day campaign that would change the course of the American Revolution, culminating at the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777.

Plans call for the painting, by celebrated American combat artist George Matthews Harding, to hang in the new visitors center at Washington Crossing Park, on the Titusville side. The center is scheduled to open in 2026, the nation’s semiquincentennial (250 years).

The journey of discovery began when Ewing author Patricia Millen, a founding member of the Washington Crossing Park Association (WCPA), was doing research with co-author Robert W. Sands Jr. for their book, Washington Crossing: Images of America (April 2022), part of an Arcadia Publishing book series. Millen, whose museum administration experience includes the Thomas Clark House in Princeton, came across a mention of the 1921 Harding mural.

“It leapt off the page because it was a big deal,” she said. “Had I missed something?” A 1971 American Association of Conservators and Restorers article noted that the mural was removed from the former Taylor Opera House in Trenton (later the RKO International) when it was torn down in 1969. The painting was slated for a then-new park visitors center to open around the nation’s bicentennial.

The painting, which turned out to be too large for the visitors center, was sent to Ringwood Manor in Passaic County for storage. Millen made some calls and learned that it was still there, in a dusty basement. “I was flabbergasted,” she said. “I knew it was important. How many people would have read this and not known, not looking to find this? That is what I love about history.” Millen turned over her information to the WCPA. “I am excited the WCPA recognized how important it is,” she said.

Coincidentally, she added, the Taylor Opera House was where a group first met in the fall of 1909 to formulate plans for Washington Crossing Park (the New Jersey park was created in 1912 and the Pennsylvania side in 1917). Owner John Taylor, the creator of pork roll, had said that his grandfather fought in the Revolutionary War under Washington, according to the WCPA.

A Lambertville art conservator, Christyl Cusworth, was engaged to assess the work. She said in an email that the painting had been stored on a paper roller for 50 years. It was “well prepared for storage with a protective facing, but not intended to be stored for such a long duration on a paper roller,” she said. “There was some bowing of the roller and therefore some deformations of the painting itself, there is a typical amount of cracking of the paint layer, discolored varnish.” The painting will need a “new structural support lining, a thorough cleaning, filling and inpainting of voids, revarnishing and stretching onto a new stretcher.” The meticulous process should take about six months.

WCPA Treasurer Michael Mitrano, who oversees the project and fundraising needed for the preservation, said they are 80 percent of the way to the goal of $60,000. The 15.5-foot by 9.8-foot mural, which is in an undisclosed secure facility, will grace the park’s new visitors center to be built by 2026. The new visitors center will be larger and have a view of the river, and historical artifacts will be better displayed, said Mitrano.

“I have learned a lot,” he said, noting that the painting is too large to move with a frame, and the frame would be assembled at the park building.

WCPA Executive Director Annette Earling said the process was a first for the group. “We’re all getting a crash course on art preservation, conservation, framing, and more,” she said.

The timing couldn’t have been better for the Visitors Center Museum. “The architects were still planning when Pat Millen emailed me about her discovery,” said Earling. “State officials acted with record speed, and the mural was factored beautifully into the next round of drawings.”

The WCPA, she said, “is excited that this mural will add another layer of interest to the museum, whose Swan Historical Foundation Collection is already going to be a tremendous draw.” She added that she recently viewed another “crossing” painting (by Emanuel Leutze ) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art “and was amazed at how moved I was. I imagine that standing before a locally painted, more historically accurate piece, painted by an experienced military artist and modeled on the Delaware River (and not the Rhine!), will impact visitors for years to come.”

Donating to the project is outlined at wcpa-nj.com/harding.

“It’s a marvelous story, part of history, lost to time in a basement with old Christmas decorations — it’s a buried treasure story,” said Mitrano.