"As neither glass, nor china, nor knives and forks, nor even table and chairs are the essential elements of a dinner, so neither bridges, towers, shelters, seats, refectories, statues, cages for birds and animals, nor even drives and walks are the essential elements of the Park. But as what is well designed to nourish the body and enliven the spirits through the stomach makes a dinner a dinner, so what is well designed to recreate the mind from urban oppressions through the eye, makes the Park the Park. All other elements of it are simply accessories of these essentials."
– Frederic Law Olmsted
New York City in the early- to mid-19th century was crowded, unsanitary, disease ridden, and expanding at an exponential rate. The antidote for those who could not afford to escape the city and retreat to the White Mountains or the Adirondacks, many leaders of the day felt, could be a large public park.
Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the co-designers of “the Central Park,” created what many consider the most important work of 19th century art in the United States. Their Greensward Plan, the entry that won the design contest for the park in 1858, provided varied forms of scenery and a chance to breathe fresh air and to take healthful exercise. In those days, before running singlets, bicycles, or tennis, healthy exercise meant walking, rowing a boat, ice-skating, or riding your horse, if you could afford one. For Olmsted and Vaux, the landscape was more than just the primary feature of the park; all other elements, such as beautiful arches and buildings, had to be subservient to the bucolic scenery.
While landscape was uppermost in the minds of Olmsted and Vaux, the park’s Board of Commissioners clearly had other plans. As the board created by-laws and began to hire staff and oversee construction, it formed subcommittees, including one on statues. The board, if not the park’s designers, understood that this soon-to-be jewel of the city was going to be a showplace, and artwork would be appropriate.
Olmsted and Vaux did not include any statues in their plan, but they did have a principal fountain, as required of all entries in the design contest. Vaux, a formally trained architect, envisioned nature-themed statues in the most formal area, the Terrace, but abandoned the idea as the construction costs for the park were far exceeding original estimates.
(all photos (c) Harvey Kopel)
Public funds were expended to buy the land for the park and to remove the structures and polluted soil that covered the site, and public money built the park. However, with the exception of the Angel of the Waters fountain at the Terrace, during the park’s early years private sources funded the numerous works of art now found here. (WPA funds were used for some works created during the Great Depression of the 20th century.)
As the park was being constructed, individuals and groups began to offer statues to the board. Most of the donors would provide the gift only if their work could be placed in a specific site. Some of the offers were of questionable artistic merit. The matter of where to place the art had become problematic.
In 1873, when park construction was nearly completed, the board formed a new group, The Committee on the Subject of Statues of the Central Park. Frederic E. Church, a prominent Hudson River School artist, Henry G. Stebbins, park board president, and Calvert Vaux were appointed to serve on the committee. By that time some 20 statues had been donated. The committee noted that two types of statues were being offered: commemorative ones that celebrated specific individuals, like William Shakespeare or Sir Walter Scott, and others that would be seen as pure art. In the latter group were objects like Indian Hunter and The Falconer.
The committee recommended that the board, not the donor, must determine whether a statue would be accepted for the park and must decide the location in accordance with specific guidelines. Commemorative statues should be placed in the formal areas and in high-trafficked places, including the Mall and Terrace, on the drives or roads around the perimeter of the park, and near entrances. These placements would least distract from the landscape as the principal artistic feature of the park. Statues that were pure art could be placed where they would best fit into the scenery and not detract from the landscape. Some donors were not pleased with these recommendations and withdrew their offers.
As you walk about the park today, you will find that to a great extent the guidelines of the 1873 committee have been followed, and they work. Statues do not appear in the park’s woodlands (the North Woods, the Ramble, and Hallett Nature Sanctuary) because they would be a distraction in those settings. Some statues, like Still Hunt and The Falconer, accentuate the natural rock formations on which they stand rather than detract from them. On the Mall, strollers can appreciate the magnificent alleé of American elms and the statues under the leafy canopy. The Mall and Terrace, by design, are the formal gathering places in the park, grand outdoor reception areas in which statues fit. Olmsted and Vaux might not be pleased with how many statues are in the park today, but chances are they could recognize that the essential element of their design, a beautiful rural retreat from the bustling city, is still the main attraction.