Posts Tagged ‘Bethesda Fountain’

The unconventional woman behind Central Park’s Angel of the Waters sculpture

June 5, 2023

In the masterpiece that is Central Park, one feature has become a symbol of the park and the city itself: Bethesda Fountain.

Unveiled in 1873, the fountain—which commemorates the opening of the Croton Aqueduct 31 years earlier—graces the lower level of Bethesda Terrace in the heart of the park at the end of the Mall.

The fountain’s base and basins are lovely, especially with lily pads floating around in the tranquil water. But it’s the bronze sculpture in the center that commands attention.

Called the Angel of the Waters, it was the only sculpture commissioned during the building of the park by Central Park’s co-designers, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, according to NYC Parks.

The Angel of the Waters has been a recognizable icon for 150 years. But few New Yorkers know the story of Emma Stebbins, the woman who designed it—and the unconventional life she led as an artist who sidestepped the rigid roles women were largely confined to in 19th century Gotham.

Her early years were not radically different than those of other artistically gifted, well-to-do girls. Born into a comfortable and cultured New York City family in 1815, Stebbins was encouraged to study drawing and painting, wrote Jennifer Harlan in a 2019 New York Times “Overlooked No More” article. She went on to exhibit her work at the National Academy of Design.

“By her twenties, she was a diligent and dedicated worker whose skill and perseverance were remarked upon by contemporaries,” according to the History of American Women blog.

Her life over the next decades in New York City centered on her oils and watercolors. “The wealth and clout of her family allowed her to devote her life to a career of art, which was not often the case for women of lesser means,” stated the Smithsonian’s Unbound blog in 2020.

Stebbins’ world changed in 1857, when she traveled to Rome and switched her focus to sculpture. There she met an American sculptor named Harriet Hosmer, who had been living in Rome for five years with a band of expatriate artists, actors, and other creatives.

With this group, Stebbins began a new career in Europe—as well as a long love affair with the celebrated American Shakespearean actress Charlotte Cushman (above, with Stebbins in an 1850s portrait). “Stebbins was welcomed into this community of women and almost immediately began a romantic relationship with Cushman that would last for the rest of their lifetimes,” stated Unbound.

Stebbins and Cushman were so devoted to each other, they exchanged 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,’” the Times stated.

While Stebbins and Cushman were living in Rome, Stebbins racked up sculpture commissions, mostly from the United States. Meanwhile, the construction of Central Park was underway. Stebbins’ brother Henry, chairman of a park architectural committee, pressured committee members to give his sister the project of creating the fountain called for in Olmsted and Vaux’s park plans.

Stebbins’ design was approved by the committee in 1862, per the New York Times. Executed in Rome and cast in Munich, Angel of the Waters was unveiled 11 years later in Central Park in front of a springtime audience of thousands, with the Central Park Band playing as the fountain spray (fed by Croton water) dazzled the crowd.

“At the dedication ceremony for the Fountain in 1873, Stebbins revealed that the sculpture’s angel was inspired by a Bible passage in the Gospel of John that describes an angel blessing the Pool of Bethesda and giving it healing powers,” wrote the Central Park Conservancy.

Clean Croton water “was ‘healing’ to New Yorkers, who had suffered through numerous devastating disease outbreaks because of contaminated drinking water,” continued the Conservancy. “The iconography of Stebbins’ sculpture furthers this connection, with the lily in the angel’s hand symbolizing the purity of the water and the four cherubs surrounding the pedestal representing peace, health, purity, and temperance.”

The fountain received mixed reviews. The New York Daily Herald pronounced it “one of the most exquisite ornaments of the park” in a June 1, 1873 edition of the paper, a day after the unveiling. The same day, the New York Times described it as a “feebly-pretty idealess thing of bronze.”

Stebbins may have had other concerns to deal with. In 1869, Cushman had been diagnosed with breast cancer. The couple returned to America in 1870, according to the New York Times piece. By the time Lady of the Waters was unveiled in 1873, Stebbins had paused her art career to care for Cushman, who ultimately died in 1876 of pneumonia. (Stebbins, unsurprisingly, was not in Cushman’s obituary, but Cushman did remember her in her will.)

With Cushman gone, Stebbins (above, in 1875) devoted herself to writing and publishing a biography of her partner. In increasingly poor health, she passed away in 1882 of a respiratory condition called “phthisis,” or pulmonary tuberculosis.

The Angel of the Waters lives on, a sublime symbol of the beauty of Central Park. And according to the Central Park Conservatory, there’s some speculation that Cushman was the basis for the figure of Stebbins’ angel.

[Third image: LOC; fourth image: Smithsonian Institute; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: MCNY X2011.34.1484; seventh image: Wikipedia]

All the ladies on the Central Park Mall in 1901

April 14, 2017

Completed in 1863, Bethesda Terrace was one of the first structures to go up in Central Park—and it’s also one of the most breathtaking, with its grand, intricately carved staircases connecting park visitors to the expanse of the Mall.

Of course, his may have been of no interest to post-Impressionist painter Maurice Prendergast.

He simply may have been struck by the sight of so many women (and some kids, plus a few men) gathered at the Terrace steps, almost all in brightly colored dresses shielding themselves from the sun under parasols.

(Hat tip to Audrey for singling out this lovely mosaic-like painting.)

The Central Park Mall in color in 1914

February 2, 2012

That’s what the postmark says, but the photograph the card is based on probably dates to several years earlier.

The caption on the back of the card notes that “here are the residences of some of New York’s wealthiest families.”

The dazzling tiles of a Central Park ceiling

November 26, 2011

New York has lots of beautiful ballroom, bar, and lobby ceilings. One of the most magical is at the Bethesda Arcade—the arched walkway in the center of the park that brings you to Bethesda Fountain and the Central Park Lake.

It’s an enchanting place to go when the weather gets dreary, a colorful antidote to gray winter days. [above photo from]

“Installed in 1869, there are more than 15,000 colorful, patterned encaustic tiles, made by England’s famed Minton Tile Company,” states

Encaustic tiles, originally created to cover the floors of European cathedrals, are made of individually colored clays pressed and fired into the tile to form the design. Bethesda Arcade is the only place in the world where Minton ceramic tiles are used for a ceiling.”

Dirty and weathered over time, the tiles were taken down in the 1980s and put in storage until 2007, when the newly restored Arcade was reopened to the public.

The cat and bird carving in Prospect Park

June 11, 2011

It’s hiding in plain sight in the middle of the park. But it’s lovely and worth looking out for.

At Concert Grove there is a long low wall—built in 1874 as a place where carriages could be fastened.

(Today it’s known as Harry’s Wall, after Harry Murphy, a co-founder of the Prospect Park Track Club—which designated the wall as a starting or ending point for races.)

At the end of the wall is a stone entryway carved with images of leaves, branches, and flowers—as well as a couple of birds, one who is currently in the sights of a cat, ready to pounce.

(Is that a cat? Not the kind prowling the park these days, at least)

It’s a lot like the stone carvings of Central Park’s Bethesda Terrace. No wonder: Both parks were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.

Central Park came first, but supposedly Olmsted and Vaux considered Prospect Park the better one.

The owls that adorn New York City

July 7, 2010

It makes sense that many old city school buildings are decorated with carved owls; owls symbolize wisdom.

But owls—some spooky, some goofy—adorn all kinds of buildings and structures in New York City.

At right, one of many huge owls guarding a (NYU-owned, maybe?) building on Broadway and East Fourth Street.

This funny little owl on the tree limb at left is part of a gate at Central Park’s Bethesda Terrace.

I’ve always been partial to this terra cotta owl carved into the ornate Stuyvesant Polyclinic building on Second Avenue and St. Mark’s Place. He looks menacing.

At left, big peepers on a midtown Lexington Avenue building.

The birds and rosebuds of Bethesda Terrace

January 23, 2010

Split-level Bethesda Terrace, near 72nd Street overlooking the lake, was designed in the 1860s to be the heart of Central Park—a grand place of people-watching and socializing.

It’s the site of some of the park’s most beautiful features: Bethesda Fountain, the “Angel of the Waters” sculpture, and the tiles adorning the ceiling of the ground-level arcade.

But don’t overlook the gorgeous ornamental stone carvings on the staircases leading to the fountain.

British-born designer Jacob Wrey Mould created these whimsical reliefs of birds and foliage—a lovely reminder of spring and summer all year round.


A gorgeous day at Bethesda Fountain

May 6, 2009

Rowing in Central Park’s lake and gathering on Bethesda Terrace appear to have been as popular 100 years ago as they are today.


The fountain, unveiled in 1873, is topped by a sculpture called “Angel of the Waters,” by Emma Stebbins. She was the first woman commissioned to create art in a city park.

“Moonlight Skating” in Central Park, 1878

January 13, 2009

This painting, by John O’Brian Inman, depicts a lovely nighttime scene at the lake in Central Park, with Bethesda Fountain in the background.

Ice skating became hugely popular in the second half of the 19th century. Skating clubs formed, and tens of thousands of New Yorkers would show up during prime winter days at the lakes of the city’s new parks.


Central Park officials had a way of letting skaters know when it was safe to go on the ice: A red ball would be raised from a bell tower in the park, near where Belvedere Castle is today. A red pennant hoisted over the middle of the lake, however, was a warning that the ice was dangerous.