Overlooked No More: Emma Stebbins, Who Sculpted an Angel of New York

Overlooked is a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times. This month we’re adding the stories of important L.G.B.T.Q. figures.

By Jennifer Harlan

The Angel of the Waters alighted in Central Park with more of a thud than a splash.

“All had expected something great, something of angelic power and beauty,” The New York Times wrote of the unveiling of the Bethesda fountain statue on June 1, 1873, “and when a feebly-pretty idealess thing of bronze was revealed the revulsion of feeling was painful.”

“The figure resembles a servant girl executing a polka,” the unnamed reviewer added.

It was an inauspicious debut for the first public art commission ever awarded to a woman in New York City.

But over the decades, as the Angel watched over picnics, parties and wedding proposals, and appeared in movies and television shows as a silent observer of musical numbers and grand romantic moments on the park’s Bethesda Terrace, she became all but synonymous with New York.

Her creator, Emma Stebbins, was the daughter of a wealthy New York banker whose family encouraged her pursuit of art. She enjoyed success from a young age: Her work was exhibited at the National Academy of Design, and she was nominated in 1842 to be an associate member of the group — the only category open to amateurs. Later, she moved to Rome and fell in love with an American actress, with whom she lived for years.

As Central Park was being built in 1858, Calvert Vaux, one of the designers, planned for a fountain on the terrace at the end of the promenade, called the Mall, near 72nd Street. The terrace would serve as the centerpiece of the park, from which visitors could look out over the splendor of the Lake.

The plans called for a sculpture of equal grandeur, one that would highlight the terrace’s decorative themes of love and nature.

Stebbins’s brother Henry was the chairman of the park’s Committee on Statuary, Fountains and Architectural Structure, and he pressured its members to give her the project. Though they were wary of the conflict of interest, they approved her design for the upper half of the fountain in 1862. The next year, Henry was elected to the House of Representatives and resigned from the board.

Even so, accusations of nepotism surrounded the project, especially after Henry resigned from Congress 19 months later, rejoined the park commission and became its president in 1865.

The eight-foot-tall angel stands with one foot outstretched upon the upper basin of the fountain, wings spread wide and robes flowing behind her. In one hand, she holds a lily, while the other is extended in a gesture of benediction. The basin on which she stands shelters four cherubs representing health, purity, temperance and peace.

Stebbins based the angel on the biblical figure Bethesda, who imbues a pool of water with healing powers; it was conceived as a tribute to the Croton Aqueduct, which brought fresh water to the city beginning in 1842.

“An angel descending to bless the water for healing,” Stebbins wrote in the program for the sculpture’s unveiling, “seems not inappropriate in connection with a fountain; for, although we have not the sad groups of blind, halt and withered waiting to be healed by the miraculous advent of the angel, we have no less healing, comfort and purification, freely sent to us through the blessed gift of pure, wholesome water, which to all the countless homes of this great city, comes like an angel visitant.”

In more recent times, the angel has been visitant in movies like “Enchanted” and “Elf” and in television shows like “Sex and the City.” Perhaps most famously, the fountain served as the setting for the final scene of Tony Kushner’s theatrical masterpiece about AIDS and homophobia during the Reagan era, “Angels in America.” (And it features in the opening credits of the HBO mini-series version of “Angels,” hauntingly lifting her head toward the viewer.)

Kushner did not initially know the sculpture’s history; he chose it, he said in a telephone interview, because it was his favorite place in New York.

“The plaza, the setting and the angel herself — it feels like the center of New York City, and the center of the universe, in a way,” he said. When he discovered that the angel’s sculptor had been gay, he added, it felt like an “auspicious moment of serendipity.”

Emma Stebbins was born in New York on Sept. 1, 1815, one of nine children of Mary (Largin) and John L. Stebbins. As a young upper-class woman, she was encouraged to study drawing and painting.

“Few lady artists of this or any country have been surrounded with circumstances more favorable to the development of genius,” the historian Elizabeth F. Ellet wrote of Stebbins in the 1859 compendium “Women Artists in All Ages and Countries.”

Stebbins moved to Rome in 1856 to study sculpture.

“Art-making was not regarded as a practical occupation in America, so going over to the Eternal City was a way of finding a cultural community that did admire art,” said Elizabeth Milroy, head of the art and art history department at Drexel University in Philadelphia and author of two papers on Stebbins’s work. (She is also Stebbins’s great-great-great-niece.)

Stebbins joined a group of what Henry James would call “that strange sisterhood of American ‘lady sculptors,’” describing them as “a white, marmorean flock.”

The group’s de facto leader was an actress, Charlotte Cushman. They became a couple.

The pair gave lavish dinner parties and waffle breakfasts for the group at their home, and were known to wear black bowler hats and ride their horses to the Villa Borghese for picnics of red wine and cheese.

They eventually exchanged unofficial vows. Cushman described herself as married to Stebbins, telling a friend in an 1858 letter that she wore “the badge upon the finger of my left hand.”

Stebbins was shy and sensitive, describing herself in a letter to the musician Sidney Lanier as “a soft-shelled crab.”

“She never boasted about herself, she never sold herself, she never marketed herself,” said Melissa Dabakis, a professor emerita of art history at Kenyon College in Ohio and the author of “A Sisterhood of Sculptors: American Artists in Nineteenth-Century Rome” (2014). “She left that to Charlotte Cushman.”

Cushman, who was famous at the time for her interpretations of Shakespeare and her ability to play both male and female roles, used her influence to secure prominent projects for her partner.

One of Stebbins’s first commissions was a bust of Cushman, which she exhibited alongside two other early works — statues of “Industry” and “Commerce” — at the Goupil & Cie gallery in New York in 1860. The Times commended the bust, citing “a peculiar intimacy between the artist and the sitter,” and called the statue of commerce “the finest achievement in marble yet reached by female genius at Rome.”

Stebbins and Cushman lived together in Rome for 12 years, until Cushman learned she had breast cancer. They returned to the United States in 1870, abandoning several of Stebbins’s unfinished pieces in Italy.

By the time the Bethesda Fountain was unveiled three years later, Stebbins had stopped working in order to care for Cushman, who died in 1876. Stebbins’s name did not appear in her partner’s obituary in The Times, which said that Cushman “never married, but lived and died a virgin queen of the dramatic stage.”

Stebbins spent much of the rest of her life writing a biography of Cushman. “I lived with the embodied principle of love so many years that it became a part of being and has grown intensive more and more since it was taken away from me,” she wrote in a letter to the sculptor Anne Whitney in 1879.

Stebbins died on Oct. 25, 1882, at 67. The cause was a lung disease, most likely worsened by years of inhaling marble dust. She was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Though the The Times made no mention of her death, it had once lauded her as a rising art star. Her sister Mary Stebbins Garland documented her work in a scrapbook and wrote her biography, “Notes on the Art Life of Emma Stebbins.” It was never published.

That someone so self-effacing left such an enduring mark on New York City surely would have surprised Stebbins.

“I did my little part as well as I could,” she wrote of her career in an 1874 letter to Whitney, “and with some of the saving grace of truth and love to sanctify it — whatever its failures.”

Alain Delaquérière contributed research.

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