Emma Stebbins, 1815-1882

  • Emma-Stebbins-WWP

Woman Category: ArtsWoman Tags: NYC Women and Sculptress

  • HerStory

    One of the first American women sculptors. Famous for creating the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, NYC.

    Emma Stebbins was born to a wealthy family in NYC. From a young age, Stebbins was encouraged to pursue her artistic talent, studying art in various studios and exhibiting her work in several galleries, including the National Academy of Design.
    In her early years, Stebbins focused on oil paintings and later began to explore sculpting. At the age of 41, her brother pushed her to nurture her newly found gift and sponsored her a trip to Rome to study neoclassicist sculpting. There, Stebbins joined the community of expatriate American artists; among them were the sculptors Harriet Hosmer, John Gibson, and Paul Akers, who taught her anatomy and modeling. One of the community’s leading members was Charlotte Cushman, who was the most famous English-language actress at the time. Stebbins and Cushman had an immediate connection, and soon they became partners. They exchanged vows and considered themselves a married couple.
    In Rome, Stebbins mastered her skills, and at 42, she embarked on a professional career. With advocation and influence from her life partner, she gained popularity and obtained commissions for her work, including three public sculptures – the highest amount that an American woman had received to that date. Over the next decade, she created a dozen marble sculptures, including “Industry” and “Commerce,” and two bronze statues, one of them is of the politicians and educational reformer Horace Mann, located at the Massachusetts State House.
    In 1870, after Cushman was diagnosed with breast cancer, the couple returned to the US. Stebbins stopped working and declined commissions so she could take care of her partner. The last creation she completed before suspending her work is her most famous one – the “Angel of the Waters” fountain on the Bethesda Terrace in Central Park in NYC, unveiled in 1873. It was the first public art commission awarded to a woman in NYC.
    After Cushman died in 1876, Stebbins dedicated herself to write her partner’s biography, titled “Charlotte Cushman: Her Letters and Memories of Her Life.” Cushman’s death and the years of inhaling marble dust affected Stebbins’ health, and in her last years, she rested at her sisters’ home in New York and Lenox, Massachusetts. She passed away at the age of 67.

    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • She had 8 siblings.
    • She was a perfectionist and refused to hire stonemasons to do the carving on her statues.
    • She was criticized for receiving the Bethesda fountain commission by nepotism since her brother was the chairman of Central Park’s Committee.
    • After her death, her sister Mary Stebbins Garland collected her work and wrote an unpublished biography titled- Notes on the Art Life of Emma Stebbins.
    • The fountain, Angel of the Waters, has appeared in many movies and TV series, including Gossip Girls and Enchanted.
  • Watch and Learn More

  • One of Her Landmarks

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  • Woman Tags: NYC Women, Sculptress

    Painting the Angel of the Waters at Bethesda Fountain in Central Park

    In an early morning bike ride into Central Park I managed to catch a musician playing guitar near Bethesda Fountain while a man made large soap bubble balloons. Watch this art meditation and enjoy a moment of creativity.

  • Stebbins on the right, next to her partner, Charlotte Cushman. Photo credit - Wikipedia

  • Citations and Additional References:
    Wikipedia page.
    An article on The New York Times website.