Location: 73rd Street, mid-Park
Artist/Designer: Emma Stebbins
Materials: Bronze, bluestone, Westerly granite
Funding: The City of New York
The Angel of the Waters, or the statue on Bethesda Fountain, was the only statue commissioned with public funds during the Park’s infancy. It was most unusual in the mid-19th century that a woman, Emma Stebbins, would be asked to develop the plans for the artistic centerpiece of the Terrace, the focal point of the Park. In fact, it was the first time a woman was tapped for such a major work.
Stebbins’ earlier work was well received by art critics, so she was not an unknown. But nepotism is often suspected as the reason that Emma received the commission. Her brother, Henry Stebbins, was a successful New York City banker and a member of the Board of Commissioners overseeing the creation of Central Park. However, Henry was off the Board between 1862 and 1864, serving a term in the United States House of Representatives; this was the same period when Emma got the job. Nonetheless, it does seem likely that Henry had some influence on the Board, a group he returned to in 1864.
Emma Stebbins’ Angel is both a biblical allegory and a celebration of the arrival of pure drinking water in New York in 1842. The reference to the Bible is a verse from the Gospel of St. John (5:2-4): "Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called … Bethesda … whoever then first after the troubling of the waters stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.” What does this have to do with New York water? By the mid-1830s, New York City had outgrown its water supply from local springs and wells. The City was unable to fight fires, and much of the existing water was polluted and foul tasting. City leaders authorized a major engineering feat: the creation of the 42-mile-long, gravity-fed Croton Aqueduct system, which delivered pure water from Westchester County to New York City. Life in the growing metropolis would have been unsustainable without the new supply of Croton water. Imagine the joy that ample, good-tasting water brought to New York in 1842!
As in the biblical verse, the angel on the Central Park fountain is troubling the water in the basin. The fountain is supported by four putti, or cherub-like figures; they represent temperance, purity, health, and peace. The Croton water brought purity and health. The statue, developed during the American Civil War, was unveiled after the war’s end, at a time when the country desperately needed healing and peace.
To learn more about the fountain, Emma Stebbins, and her companion, the actress Charlotte Cushman, and to see thumbnails of several movies shot on location, go to
(Angel of the Waters)
Click on the photo to enlarge