When N.C. Wyeth completed his mural depicting George Washington entering Trenton, the Great Depression was gathering steam, and Wells Fargo consisted of a couple of buildings out in San Francisco.
The First Mechanics Bank of Trenton, a big player in town at the time, commissioned the painting in 1930 from the famous artist and illustrator, seeking a patriotic statement for its new building at the corner of West State and North Warren Streets, site of a meeting of the Continental Congress and other founding national events.
The First Mechanics building is still there, near the New Jersey statehouse, but the bank was gobbled up years ago by the Wells Fargo financial services behemoth. In 2013, Wells Fargo moved its retail banking operations across the street — to a new location that was far too small to accommodate the likes of N.C. Wyeth.
Civic leaders concerned about losing their beloved Wyeth convinced Wells Fargo to place the painting on long-term loan to Thomas Edison State University, a couple of blocks down the street. Thomas Edison is a state school with an enrollment of about 15,000, mostly adults. Most courses are online.
Now, on Friday, Wells Fargo and the college will hold a ceremony announcing that Wyeth’s 17-by-12-foot mural, Reception to Washington on April 21, 1789, at Trenton on his way to New York to Assume the Duties of the Presidency of the United States, has been given to the university — its value of $4 million in cash money dwarfed by its value to Trenton’s sense of place.
“We’re thrilled about the gift,” said Thomas Edison’s vice president for public affairs, John Thurber. “It’s really a significant part of Trenton’s history and depicts a scene that’s a turning point" in the nation.
“We decided we wanted to make sure it remained within the city," said a Wells Fargo spokeswoman. "And we’re excited we were able to do that.”
The painting and the Revolutionary-era events it suggests, said Thurber, “are central to the city’s sense of place.”
After boning up at the Trenton library, Wyeth determined to depict Washington being welcomed by maidens scattering flower petals along his way. The general, aboard his white horse, of course, lifts his hat in benign greeting.
Washington was, in fact, thrilled by the reception, and later wrote a letter to "the Ladies of Trenton” thanking them for it. Adding to Washington’s warm feeling, Thurber said, was the fact that “the ladies” greeted him at the same spot where he had earlier faced the carnage of war in the Second Battle of Trenton, lending an "astonishing contrast between [the] former and actual situation at the same spot.”
Thurber said that this image of Washington on the bridge over the Assunpink Creek, would have been as instantly recognizable to patrons of First Mechanics Bank in 1930 as Washington crossing the Delaware would be today.
“It was very familiar to Americans,” he said.