Trenton is a mural city.
There are historical, almost photo-realist murals, like Illia Barger’s Declaration of Independence off South Warren Street. Community murals such as S.A.G.E. Coalition has created on and around East Hanover Street. Religious murals like the one at Turning Point United Methodist Church on South Broad Street. Graffiti murals all over the TerraCycle headquarters on New York Avenue, not too mention all over the city as a whole. Painstakingly planned and executed murals like Phillip Adams’ Trenton Mural Arts Program work off Route 129. There are even awful mural monstrosities, like the block-long “baseball and civic pride” eyesore on the Cass Street wall of the New Jersey State Prison.
The city plays host to another mural, venerable and elusive, likely the first mural executed in Trenton that was conceived as a work of art rather than public speech or advertising. It’s more than a hundred years old and takes a little planning to get to, but it’s worth the effort. It adorns the whole wall behind the dais of City Counsel chambers in City Hall. Completed in 1911 by painter Everett Shinn, it is simply titled the “Trenton Mural.”
Jermaine Lee, an outgoing employee of the City Clerk’s office, recently escorted myself and artist Tamara Ramos to view Shinn’s Trenton Mural. Unlocking the door and turning on the lights to the Council chambers, Lee chatted with us about the poetry she writes and what it might have meant to her ancestors that she, an African-American woman, travels so easily through these imposing wood-panel and white-marble realms.
A hush fell over us as we entered. In the large quiet room, the mural dominates with a coiled mysterious energy. The oil-on-plaster work measures 22 by 45 feet. From its dark reaches, toiling figures emerge at the base. Above, the mural becomes almost abstract, a seething atmosphere of smoke and color.
Everett Shinn was born in Woodstown, New Jersey in 1876. He trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia then moved to New York City, where his portrayal of the streets, and the poor who inhabited them, earned him inclusion in the “Ash Can School” of artists of urban realism. Travels to Europe and an interest in the theater resulted in Shinn focusing on new subject matter in his art later in his career, but he always retained his humanistic interest, portraying quotidian scenes of life until he died in 1953 in New York.
In his lifetime, Shinn witnessed a radical transformation of his country into a mechanized industrial power. So it is fitting that he was commissioned to paint a mural to be installed in Trenton’s newly completed Beaux-Arts-style City Hall building – designed by architect Spencer Roberts – an opulent symbol of this city’s new industrial wealth.
Shinn chose to portray not the captains and edifices of Trenton’s major industrial powers at the time, but the workers for those industries. The mural features laborers from the Roebling Steel Mill on the lower left, and from Maddock Pottery on the lower right. While Shinn’s workers are certainly heroic, they are also depicted performing hard, hot, backbreaking labor. Shinn supposedly spent six months on site at the Roebling and Maddock factories, immersed in their people and processes, to ensure he portrayed the intensity of the labor there realistically.
At a time when murals almost exclusively portrayed religious or natural subjects, Shinn’s 1911 depiction of hard labor and gritty industry is a revolutionary conception that was well before its time. The radical social message and industrial conception of the famous Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros would not emerge for another decade, seen in America in mural commissions in Detroit and New York in the 1930s.
“Shinn’s mural is the first instance of the use of contemporary, regional, and working class subjects in mural painting in the United States, and thus breaks with the dominant use of historical and allegorical themes,” states Thomas C. Folk in his essay in the 1990 book,”Public Art in New Jersey During the Period of the American Renaissance.”
“Shinn’s Trenton Mural has a unique position in American art history because it bridges the murals of the American Renaissance with those of the Great Depression,” Folk writes.
Beyond its historical or social significance, Shinn’s mural accomplishes what any good mural must accomplish. It is powerful.
As with any mural or other piece of grandly-conceived public art, no image or images can do justice to Everett Shinn’s Trenton Mural. You have see it with your own eyes.
Everett Shinn’s Trenton Mural is located in City Council chambers in Trenton City Hall, 319 East State Street. Although the mural can be viewed during Council and other regular public meetings, it is best taken in in the stillness of an empty chamber. Arrange your visit during regular daytime business hours through the City Clerk’s office in City Hall, (609) 989-3187.