The cover of my novel, The Better Angels, features a photo of the Angel of the Waters statue which rises above Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain. Let me tell you a bit about the statue’s history, and how one woman’s vision was validated and embraced by generations of park visitors despite a sharply critical negative review published in the New York Times at the statue’s unveiling.
The angel was New York’s first major public art commission awarded to a woman. The sculptor, Emma Stebbins (1815-1882), was from a prominent New York family. Her brother, Henry, was chairman of the park’s Committee on Statuary, Fountains and Architectural Structure, and many assumed that was how Emma received the commission. This is not to say that Emma was untrained or untalented. She had shown promise from an early age and had studied sculpting in Rome. While in Rome, she also met and fell in love with the American actress Charlotte Cushman, and the two exchanged “unofficial vows.”
The angel is the only sculpture commissioned as a part of the park’s original design. It was intended to embody the idea of love. As the Central Park Conservancy puts it, Emma “put her own spin on the work, interpreting the statue’s directive, that it be dedicated to ‘Love,’ liberally by adding several layers of meaning.”
One of the meanings invested in the statue was healing, particularly the healing power of water. The design referenced the biblical story in which an angel gives healing powers to the waters of Bethesda. The fountain was also meant to celebrate the new Croton Aqueduct (a water distribution system built between 1837 and 1842) which supplied clean drinking water to the city.
The angel herself is eight feet tall and made of bronze. She carries a lily, the symbol of purity. The four cherubs that support her represent health, purity, temperance, and peace. Construction of the terrace and fountain occurred during the American Civil War, but the angel did not appear until 1873.
Now here’s the part of the angel’s story that had me shaking my head. I found the June 1873 New York Times review of the statue’s unveiling, and, reading it now, it is clearly wrong in every respect—completely, inarguably, laughably wrong. The unnamed reviewer hated just about everything about the statue and even disagreed with the placement of the fountain itself. (Placing a fountain directly beside a lake was described as “ill-chosen” because it was like adding “sugar to sweetmeats or carrying coals to Newcastle.”)
He (I’m assuming the reviewer was male) began by saying everyone had expected “something great” and experienced “a revulsion of feeling” at the “feebly-pretty … thing of bronze.” He goes on to opine that the head is male, the breasts female, and the rest of the body a combination of male and female. He compares the figure to a servant girl doing a polka in the back kitchen and a dancing girl jumping over stepping stones. He apparently doesn’t like the fact that the angel seems to be wearing “voluminous folds” of petticoats that are nonetheless diaphanous and reveal the angel’s figure. The wings come in for criticism as well, as do the four cherubs (“hopelessly nondescript”).
All who have seen the angel, know how wrong the reviewer was. I found myself wondering how he could fail to fathom—to truly see—the beauty and the love embodied in that sculpture. If you would like to see the angel yourself, she can be found mid park, at about 72nd. Street.
The 1873 review is at https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1873/06/01/80321660.pdf. In May of this year, the New York Times published an “overlooked no more” obituary of Emma Stebbins. It is at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/29/obituaries/emma-stebbins-overlooked.html. My publisher is All Things That Matter Press which can be found at https://www.allthingsthatmatterpress.com/. The photo of the angel on the cover of my book is by Douglas Biklen. His website is http://biklenartphotography.com/.