August 31, 1815 – Emma Stebbins
The Angel Of The Waters is the name of the statue atop the Bethesda Fountain, a masterpiece by sculptor Emma Stebbins. It was the earliest public art by a woman in New York City and the only sculpture sanctioned as part of the early design and construction phase of Central Park. It was cast in Munich and officially dedicated on May 31, 1873.
Stebbins’ famous statue depicts the biblical story of an angel who imbues the waters of Bethesda with healing powers; it is surrounded by four cherubs representing “health”, “purity”, “peace,” and “temperance”. This theme was an especially appropriate symbol of the health benefits provided by the new park and by the water from the Croton Aqueduct (opened in 1842) stored in Central Park reservoirs.
Tony Kushner understood the symbolism of the curative powers of the water from the fountain and set the powerful final scene of the Perestroika section of his classic AIDS-themed play Angels In America (1993) at its location in Central Park.
Stebbins was born and raised in New York City. She was one of nine children. Her parents encouraged her talents in art and in 1843 she studied with several different sculptors. But, if someone really wanted to study sculpture, you went to Italy, of course, and Stebbins moved to Rome in 1857. She remained in Rome for another decade, during the Civil War back in the United States (1861-1865).
If you have studied any Art History, it would seem that lesbian artists did not exist before 1970, but actually, there was a community of lesbian artists working in the 19th century in Italy. Like our own era, homophobia and sexism were part of the society. Women became anonymous because of these reasons, but Rome was one of the cities where artists could practice their art. Lesbian artists arrived in Rome searching inspiration and they found other women doing the same.
In Rome, Stebbins fell in love with actor Charlotte Cushman (1816-1876) who was famous in NYC and London in the mid-19th century for playing male characters including Hamlet; she was handsome and charismatic. Over her 40-year career Cushman was one of the best-known women in the world. Her fans idolized her, and her retirement from the stage inspired a farewell ceremony described in the New York Herald as “the most spectacular … in the history of the American Theatre”. Thousands came to her honor with fireworks and a candlelight procession through the streets of NYC.
In the 1850s, Cushman set up a feminist household in Rome that attracted gay women artists and writers. Stebbins was just one of the lesbian artists known as “female jolly bachelors” that formed a circle around Cushman. The group, which included artists Harriet Hosmer and Edmonia Lewis, were among the first generation of women to forge their own careers in the arts and publicly have same-sex lovers.
Much of Cushman’s appeal was the strength of her character at a time when the Women’s Rights Movement was new. There was a perception of her disinterest in men which absolved the theatre world of its tawdry reputation. Her flamboyant affairs were probably tolerated because romantic friendships among women were thought to be chaste in the 19th century. Only men desired sex.
Cushman was born in Boston in 1816, a descendant of Robert Cushman, one of the first Pilgrims. Even as a youth, she had a commanding presence and a remarkable alto voice. She took music lessons and then left school to pursue a career in opera. In 1835, she made her professional stage debut as Countess Almaviva in The Marriage Of Figaro at the Tremont Theatre in Boston. She was 18 years old and on her way to fame.
But Cushman ruined her alto, singing parts too high for her natural range. He agent advised her to try acting. She was cast as Lady Macbeth and played it to great success in NYC and on tour.
In 1843, Cushman met Rosalie Sully, the daughter of portrait painter Thomas Sully (his subjects included Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams, and the Marquis de Lafayette) and they began a romance. When it ended, she left America, looking for her big break in English theatre. Audiences in London went crazy for her.
In England she met Matilda Hays, a writer. For 10 years they were involved in a tempestuous relationship. They dressed alike and were publicly recognized as a couple. Elizabeth Barrett Browning called it a “female marriage”.
In 1844, Cushman returned to America, where she could command top dollar for her performances. In 1852 she decided to retire from showbiz (not for the last time) and moved to Rome, where she set up her household of artistic females.
Cushman used her fame and money to promote the work of her women friends, including Stebbins. A jealous Hays suspected Cushman’s affair with Stebbins and attacked her in a rage. You know how bad girls get. Hays claimed she had given up her career for Cushman and sued her in one of the first palimony cases. Cushman paid her off with an undisclosed amount of money.
In 1858, Cushman embarked on a tour of America, where she was billed as The Greatest Living Tragic Actress, which was more or less true. On that tour she fell in love with 18-year-old Emma Crow. Cushman called Crow “my little lover”, and brought her back to Italy where Crow joined the household.
Back to Stebbins: By her 20s, she was a diligent and dedicated sculptor and painter whose skill and perseverance were noticed by her contemporaries. A portrait titled Miss Stebbins Of New York by Samuel Stillman Osgood (1808 – 1885) now hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and may document a disappointing chapter in her early career.
In 1842 Stebbins was elected to the National Academy of Design as an amateur artist. The academy required new members to submit a portrait of themselves within a year. Since the Academy rules did not stipulate by whom the portrait should be painted (though most candidates contributed self-portraits), Stebbins picked Osgood, one of the five other artists elected with her, to paint her portrait. Four of the five other candidates were admitted, but Stebbins was not. Her membership was nullified because she did not follow proper procedure.
In 1857, with help from her brother Henry Stebbins, head of the New York Stock Exchange, Stebbins moved to Rome, where she was welcomed into that expatriate community of American women artists who lived there. Rome offered a community which supported art: teachers, technicians, students and international collectors.
Cushman promoted Stebbins’ career, and Stebbins finally became a professional artist at 46 years old.
Over the next decade, Stebbins produced a dozen marble sculptures and two important public works in bronze. She became a perfect example of the well-bred woman who had taken advantage of the opportunities available to those of her class. Few “lady artists” of this or any country have been surrounded with circumstances more favorable to the development of genius. Her family and circle of friends appreciated and encouraged her efforts.
During the 1860s, Stebbins was awarded three major public commissions, more than any American woman had to that date. One of her earliest was a portrait bust of Cushman. Cushman had a square, masculine jaw, which Stebbins handled with grace and dignity.
Stebbins struggled with the physical demands of her public career. A perfectionist, she refused to hire stonemasons to do the carving, as many sculptors did, and the physical demands of making sculpture were affecting her health. Years of working in a studio filled with marble dust had weakened her lungs.
Cushman was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1869, and in 1871 she decided to return to the USA. Stebbins ignored her own career and devoted all of her time to caring for Cushman. She built a cottage-mansion for them in Newport, Rhode Island. During the last six years of her life Cushman gave dramatic readings at her home, which proved as popular as her theatre career.
The Stebbin family began to openly question her relationship with Cushman, saying that her life with Cushman had injured her “morally, socially, and physically”. The Stebbins did not like Cushman’s family and the feeling was mutual. Yet, the two women persevered, refusing to be separated.
Henry Stebbins procured the commission for Angel Of The Waters for his sister. He had been selected as president of the Central Park Board of Commissioners, and he hoped to have several pieces of her art placed in Central Park. The Bethesda Terrace is one of the great works of 19th century American sculpture, but there were plenty of problems with its completion. Deliveries of Stebbins’ bronze figures for the Bethesda Fountain from Europe were twice delayed, first by the Franco-Prussian War and then by difficulties in Manhattan.
Bethesda Fountain was finally unveiled in late spring 1873. Angel Of the Waters with her outstretched wings; her arms reaching downward, blesses the water below. Reviews were mixed.
A year before she died, Cushman went to a cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts to choose her gravesite. She looked at plots and tombs in prominent positions throughout the cemetery. Finally, she said:
“Haven’t you a lot for sale where one could obtain an unobstructed view of Boston?”
She found just the thing at the highest point in the cemetery, with sweeping view of Boston and the widest part of the Charles River. She liked it so much she invited her circle of female friends to visit it. Cushman died in a Boston hotel room in 1876.
Stebbins produced no more sculpture after the death of Cushman. She wrote Cushman’s biography and compiled her correspondence, published as Charlotte Cushman: Her Letters And Memories Of Her Life (1878). She died in 1882, taken by a heart condition caused by carving marble and inhaling its dust, gone at 67. She is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.