The definitive crown jewel of Central Park, is one of the most famous and universally loved fountains in the world, Bethesda Fountain. Designed by Emma Stebbins, the centerpiece of the "Angel of the Waters" was the only sculpture commissioned as part of the original design of the Park naming her the first woman to receive a commission for a major work of art in New York City.
Born and raised in a wealthy New York family, Stebbins was encouraged by her family in her pursuit of art from an early age. She moved to Rome where she studied under John Gibson an English neoclassicist working there at that time.
While living and studying in Rome she fell in love with actress Charlotte Saunders Cushman, and quickly became involved in the bohemian and feminist lesbian lifestyle, which was more tolerated there than it would have been back in New York.
According to Central Park historian Sara Cedar Miller, Stebbins received the commission for the sculpture as a result of influence from her brother. Henry, who at the time was president of the Central Park Board of Commissioners. Henry's motivation, Miller believes, may have been an unsuccessful attempt to induce her to return to New York and break up with Cushman, a relationship that to Henry was a source of embarrassing gossip in New York.
Cushman was confidant, strong, and charismatic, and recently recovering from a break up following a ten-year relationship with the actress Matilda Hays. Following the death of Cushman, Stebbins never produced another sculpture. Stebbins died in New York in 1882, at the age of 67
Located on the lower level of Bethesda Terrace, this neoclassical winged female figure symbolizes and celebrates the purifying of the city’s water supply when the Croton Aqueduct opened in 1842 bringing fresh water to all New Yorkers. For this reason she carries a lily, the symbol of purity in one hand while her other hand extends outward as she blesses the water below. The stimulus for the idea of the "Angel of the Waters" comes from the Gospel of Saint John, Chapter 5, the story of an angel bestowing healing powers on the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem. Beneath the eight-foot gilded bronze statue are four smaller four-foot figures symbolizing Temperance, Purity, Health, and Peace. The base of the fountain was designed by Calvert Vaux with detail work by Jacob Wrey Mould. Central Park, as many people are aware of, was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.
Emma Stebbins was also part of the impetus to educate women at Columbia University -- thereby resulting in the formation of Barnard College.
If you haven’t seen it.. go visit. I’m told this is the most visited spot in all of Manhattan by tourists. Otherwise watch a video, where the Angel has a supporting role.
(This post is inspired by yesterday’s discussion with another passionate New Yorker.)