When I taught a writing course at a Manhattan college, I would take students on walks through nearby Central Park and use statues to sharpen their descriptive skills and to prepare them to write compare-and-contrast essays. Several class members were struck by the absence of statues of “real” women. Statues of notable women, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Golda Meir, and Joan of Arc, can be found in other New York City parks. But all the women in bronze in Central Park are allegorical or fictional figures. We have an angel with healing powers, Winged Victory, the beloved Alice in Wonderland, even a powerful symbol of the U.S. embodied in Columbia, among others. The students assumed that the omission of real women reflected sexism of the park’s Board.
My students did not do enough research to discover that real women are seen in park statues. That is, some of these allegorical and fictional characters are depictions of real women: the models who sat for the artists. At least in two cases, the stories about the models deserve retelling.
Hettie E. Andersen
At Grand Army Plaza at the southeastern edge of the park, the allegorical figure of Victory leads General William Tecumseh Sherman and his horse. This composition, by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, is considered one of the best outdoor sculptures in New York. The model for Victory is presumed to be Hettie Eugenia Andersen, an African-American woman from Columbia, South Carolina. Saint-Gaudens also used Andersen as his model for a 20-dollar gold coin, the American eagle.
The official records about Andersen’s working relationship with the artist are somewhat sketchy, thanks to Homer Saint-Gaudens, the sculptor’s son. As a study for the Sherman composition, Saint-Gaudens made a plaster bust of Andersen and gave it to her as a gift, telling her that someday it would be valuable. After Saint-Gaudens’ death, his son wanted to borrow the bust and have it used to make bronze table-top figures. Andersen refused, realizing that if it was no longer one of a kind and multiple bronze statues were cast, the value would drop. Homer edited Andersen out of his father’s papers, for which he had exclusive control.
The story about another beautiful woman, Audrey Munson, is sadder. Munson was a professional artist’s model who was widely painted and sculpted; she also was a star of early silent movies. Munson was unusual in her willingness to pose nude “publicly.” This was the early 20th century, when Victorian notions of morality still pervaded America. Munson’s work as an artist’s muse put her in a tenuous position: highly desirable and sought after, yet scandalous.
Munson’s popularity as a model earned her two places in Central Park. She is depicted as Karl Bitter’s Pomona at the Pulitzer Fountain at the south end of Grand Army Plaza at Fifth Avenue. Across Central Park South, on the far west corner of 59th Street, Munson stands atop the Maine Monument as the figure Columbia, sculpted by Attilio Piccirilli.
Munson can also be found in at least 15 other prominent places throughout New York City, in works by at least ten different sculptors. Adolph Weinman placed her atop the Municipal Building as Civic Fame, and Daniel Chester French used her as the model for America at the US Customs House at Bowling Green. As she was one of the most popular models of her day, her image can be seen outside New York City as well.
Photos (c) Harvey Kopel
In 1915 Munson became the first woman to pose nude in a motion picture. She was featured in several art films celebrating the beauty of the human form – not pornography – but many critics of the day were outraged by her supposed immorality.
Being in the spotlight had unpredictable adverse consequences. In the 1920s the press implicated Munson as the inspiration for a murder. A former landlord apparently killed his wife to free himself to marry the model. However, Munson had nothing to do with the crime.
By the mid-1920s Munson’s celebrity began to fade as the artists who made her famous either died or moved on to other models. Munson made a failed suicide attempt and eventually was committed to an insane asylum. She spent the remaining 65 years of her life forgotten by virtually everyone and died in 1996, at the age of 105, in the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center in Ogdensburg, New York.