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The Unsung Female Muses of New York’s Public Sculpture

Audrey Munson in the 1915 film 'Inspiration' (via Wikimedia)
Audrey Munson in the 1915 film ‘Inspiration’ (via Wikimedia)

New York City is seriously lacking in sculptures of historic women, with just five among the hundreds of bronzes and granite monuments in the five boroughs. Yet look into the faces of some of its allegorical figures — its angels, goddesses, and symbols of victory — and there are other real women embodied in these statues, even if their names are often lost. Here are five women who had their likeness immortalized in public sculpture as artist’s models and muses.

Audrey Munson

Civic Fame, Penn Station, the Manhattan Bridge, and Others

No other face appears as frequently in New York City’s statues as that of the tragic Audrey Munson. From Adolph Alexander Weinman’s gilded 1913 “Civic Fame” on the top of the Municipal Building, to his “Day” and “Night” statues that graced the façade of the now-demolished Pennsylvania Station, she modeled for more than 15 of the city’s public sculptures.

"Civic Fame" on the Municipal Building (photo by Jack Zalium/Flickr)
“Civic Fame” on the Municipal Building (photo by Jack Zalium/Flickr) (click to enlarge)

Nicknamed “Miss Manhattan” and “American Venus,” her angular face and dynamic poses enamored early 20th-century artists who saw her as the living embodiment of the Greek ideal. Her characters were diverse, whether the hard-eyed visages of “Duty” and “Sacrifice” on the 1913 “Firemen’s Memorial” by Attilio Piccirilli in Riverside Park, or the lunging 1914 “Spirit of Commerce” by Carl A. Heber that seems ready to fly off the granite of the Manhattan Bridge. In the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she looks contemplative in Daniel Chester French’s 1917–19 marble “Memory.” On the 1915 memorial by Augustus Lukeman to Titanic victims Isidor and Ida Straus on the Upper West Side, she reclines mournfully in bronze.

Each is vividly strong and practically pulsing with life. She even had a scandalous star turn in the 1915 silent film Inspiration, where she appeared nude as a sculptor’s model, the first person to do so in a film released for the public.

Then in 1919 her life was rocked by scandal when a doctor, whose home she was boarding in, murdered his wife so he could marry her. On May 27, 1922, shortly before she was to turn 31, she attempted suicide by ingesting bichloride of mercury solution, and after that failed was institutionalized. She remained in St. Lawrence State Hospital for the Insane in Ogdensburg, New York, until she died in 1996 at 105. She is buried in an unmarked grave.

According to the New York Times, in 1921, she wrote a reflective column considering “what becomes of the artist’s models?”:

I am wondering if many of my readers have not stood before a masterpiece of lovely sculpture or a remarkable painting of a young girl, her very abandonment of draperies accentuating rather than diminishing her modesty and purity, and asked themselves the question, “Where is she now, this model who was so beautiful?”

Sculpture based on Audrey Munson by Carl A. Heber on the Manhattan Bridge (photo by Beyond My Ken/Wikimedia)
Sculpture based on Audrey Munson by Carl A. Heber on the Manhattan Bridge (photo by Beyond My Ken/Wikimedia)

Doris Doscher

Pulitzer Fountain and Flushing Memorial

A fellow silent film actress, Doris Doscher, best known for her role as Eve in the 1918 The Birth of a Race, a reaction to the incendiary The Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith, was another beloved early 20th century model.

Doris Doscher in 1917 (via Wikimedia)
Doris Doscher in 1917 (via Wikimedia) (click to enlarge)

While it’s sometimes attributed to Munson, the 1915 statue of Pomona, Roman goddess of abundance, atop the Pulitzer Fountain outside the Plaza Hotel is Doscher sculpted by Karl Bitter.

When the nude bronze got a bit grimy in the 1930s, and Pulitzer’s son Ralph shelled out the funds to clean it, she coyly told the New York Times: “I want to take this opportunity to offer my thanks to Mr. Pulitzer for enabling me to again stand exalted — and scrubbed — above the grounds on Fifth Avenue, generously spurting precious, clear water — flush in these times of dried-up prosperity.”

Her curvy figure also appears in pink marble on Hermon Atkins MacNeil’s Flushing Memorial in Queens, and on his Standing Liberty quarter that was minted from 1916 to 1930 (although there are some rivals for that title as well). Until her death in 1970, she proudly held the nickname of the “Girl on the Quarter.”

The Pulitzer Fountain outside the Plaza Hotel (photo by Jim Henderson/Wikimedia)
The Pulitzer Fountain outside the Plaza Hotel (photo by Jim Henderson/Wikimedia)

Hettie Anderson

Peace with William Tecumseh Sherman

Just across from the Pulitzer Fountain in Manhattan’s Grand Army Plaza, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman rides on a gilded bronze horse, with the winged personification of Peace leading the way. Sculpted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the 1903 equestrian statue includes a pine branch at the horse’s hooves, a reference to Sherman’s march through Georgia. It was actually a black woman from the South —Harriette (“Hettie”) Eugenia Anderson — who modeled for Peace.

Statue of William Tecumseh Sherman in Grand Army Plaza, Manhattan (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Statue of William Tecumseh Sherman in Grand Army Plaza, Manhattan (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

According to NYC Parks, Hettie Anderson was said by Saint-Gaudens to be “certainly the handsomest model I have ever seen of either sex,” and she was a a popular Gilded Age muse in New York. Saint-Gaudens, who revered her as “Goddess-like,” also used her profile on his Indian Head eagle coin design, minted from 1907 to 1916. She’s now almost forgotten, as, according to the Smithsonian Institution’s American Art, the Saint-Gaudens family eliminated her from his legacy, partly due to her race, partly because she wouldn’t copy the bust of her head that he’d made as a gift for her. Her proud pose, arm outstretched, inspired subsequent monuments, such as “Victory” by Carl A. Heber at the World War I monument in Greenpoint’s McGorlick Park.

Statue of William Tecumseh Sherman in Grand Army Plaza, Manhattan (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Statue of William Tecumseh Sherman in Grand Army Plaza, Manhattan (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Claudia Deloney

Freedom Square

Little is recorded about Claudia Deloney’s life; NYC Parks cryptically states she was both an actress and friend of Gloria Swanson. Her memory is preserved in one of the city’s most striking statues: the 1921 Greek goddess of victory who presides over Bushwick’s Freedom Square.

Lodged between Bushwick, Myrtle, and Willoughby Avenues, right by the elevated M tracks, the winged Nike sculpted by Pietro Montana is easy to miss amid the traffic. She’s part of a memorial to Brooklynites lost in World War I. In one hand, she raises an olive branch, her whole body swaying forward, an expression of hope for future peace.

"Victory with Peace" by Pietro Montana in Bushwick's Freedom Square (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
“Victory with Peace” by Pietro Montana in Bushwick’s Freedom Square (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
"Victory with Peace" by Pietro Montana in Bushwick's Freedom Square (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
“Victory with Peace” by Pietro Montana in Bushwick’s Freedom Square (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Donna Maria de Creeft

Alice in Wonderland

Just as Lewis Carroll based his fictional Alice after Alice Liddell, so did sculptor José de Creeft look for inspiration in his real life. In creating the 1959 “Alice in Wonderland” in Central Park, positioned alongside the Conservatory Water, he modeled Alice’s face after his own daughter Donna Maria, who grew up to be a successful artist in her own right. (You can see her posed with a model of the statue at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.) There is a believable life in her presence atop the metal mushrooms, surrounded by curious characters like the Mad Hatter, Cheshire Cat, March Hare, and Dormouse. And over the years, the bronze has grown smooth and shiny beneath the climbing hands of numerous children drawn to the whimsical statue.

"Alice in Wonderland" in Central Park (photo by Andrés Nieto Porras/Flickr)
“Alice in Wonderland” in Central Park (photo by Andrés Nieto Porras/Flickr)

Charlotte Cushman

Angel of the Waters

Not far from Alice is the arguable heart of Central Park — Bethesda Terrace — where a seraphic woman walks over the popular fountain. “Angel of the Waters” was completed by Emma Stebbins in 1868, and it honors the opening of the Croton Aqueduct and the flow of its clean water through the city. According to NYC Parks, she was “the first woman to receive a commission for a major public work in New York City,” and it’s the only statue included in the park’s original design.

Ambrotype of Charlotte Cushman from 1859 (via Library of Congress)
Ambrotype of Charlotte Cushman from 1859 (via Library of Congress) (click to enlarge)

NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission notes that Stebbins “designed her masterpiece, the Bethesda Fountain, during the 1860s while she was living in Rome with her lover, the American actress Charlotte Cushman.” Cushman was a major support in Stebbins’ life, encouraging her career with the same force that made her a riveting presence on the stage.

Christopher Benfey wrote in the New York Times, while reviewing Julia Markus’s Across an Untried Sea on forgotten Victorian women, that Cushman was “more battleship than luxury liner. One of the towering theatrical figures of her time, she shocked staid Edinburgh by playing Romeo opposite her own sister, but London audiences loved the hint of sororial kinkiness.”

There’s much speculation that Cushman was the model for “Angel of Waters,” although there is no definitive proof. Even if the angel’s face appears too conventionally pretty to be hers, the body that is visibly moving beneath the heavily sculpted drapery certainly has some of that battleship energy. Sara Cedar Miller in Central Park, an American Masterpiece affirms that her physique might be the one walking confidently with lily in hand. In 1869, Cushman was diagnosed with breast cancer and went into decline, with Stebbins caring for her companion until her death in 1876. Along the way, they tried every possible treatment, including water cures. As Stebbins completed the sculpture, her beloved was dying, and likely never absent from her mind. The angel with her outstretched wings is vivacious, striding barefoot as water flows beneath her feet, and it is a stunning depiction of strength against loss.

"Angel of the Waters" by Emma Stebbins at Bethesda Fountain in Central Park (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
“Angel of the Waters” by Emma Stebbins at Bethesda Fountain in Central Park (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
"Angel of the Waters" by Emma Stebbins at Bethesda Fountain in Central Park (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
“Angel of the Waters” by Emma Stebbins at Bethesda Fountain in Central Park (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
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