Bethesda Fountain’s Place in LGBTQ+ History

The scene at Bethesda Terrace on any given day is brimming with life. As you emerge from a shaded cathedral of Minton tiles and as sunlight streams through the Arcade’s elegant arches, Bethesda overwhelms you with a smorgasbord of celebration and activity: families play, friends cackle, strangers chat, cameras flash, lunches are consumed, and songs sung. New York City itself appears to unfold in front of you all at once, its personalities taking a rare moment to pause in the Park for a moment of connection. And at the center of it all, hovering high above and blessing the whole production: the Bethesda Fountain angel.

It's been 150 years since the City of New York first dedicated Bethesda Fountain. The story of the fountain and Angel of the Waters, the iconic statue that sits atop of it, is a story of healing, love, and promise for both the City and the work’s creator, Emma Stebbins. Through the past century and a half, it has evolved into one of the City’s most iconic sites—seen in movies like John Wick, Enchanted, Home Alone 2, and The Avengers—yet its artist is far from a household name. On this monumental anniversary, we share the story of Emma Stebbins, the first woman to receive a public art commission from the City of New York.

The grim reality of New York City’s clean water crisis

During Emma’s childhood, New York City was beginning to take shape as the major metropolitan hub we know today. By 1825, the completion of the Erie Canal, the Hudson River became the major artery for trade and transportation, catalyzing explosive economic and population growth. But amid the broadening bounty of people, culture, and opportunity, there was a growing problem. New York’s infrastructure could not keep up. Sanitation practices and systems were not equipped to support a city of New York’s size without grave public health consequences.

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Angel of the Waters is the centerpiece of Bethesda Terrace, located at the heart of Central Park and overlooking the Ramble and the Lake.

This lack of sanitation led to the severe scarcity of clean drinking water. New Yorkers relied on local springs, wells, and rivers for water, and these were polluted and contaminated. Disease ran rampant, and the effects were tragic. Cholera, in particular, killed 3,500 New Yorkers in just two months, its dehydrated victims reportedly crying out for cold water as they rapidly perished of dysentery. Despite the economic privilege and social status of the Stebbins family—able to access good hygiene and sanitary drinking water—Emma’s own brother, John Wilson Stebbins, tragically died of cholera in 1837.

This horrific mass suffering was a key reason that New York City began building Central Park in 1858. Its creators, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, believed that public parks and greenspaces were a salve to the physical, mental, and emotional public health ailments of a burgeoning urban mecca.

Why is Bethesda Fountain famous?

Central Park wasn’t the only major effort by City planners to enhance public wellbeing and safety. Built between 1837 and 1842, the Croton Aqueduct was a monumental engineering effort that brought fresh, clean, uncontaminated water to all inhabitants of New York City. It was a landmark moment—harmonious with Central Park in the enhancement that it provided to New Yorkers’ quality of life—and Bethesda Fountain was built as a celebration of this major achievement. Though the Park’s designers desired to prioritize natural landscapes over ornamental architectural features, Central Park’s board of commissioners approved the final design for a terrace that was to serve as a “centerpiece” at the heart of the Park. Approved in September 1858, it was to be an imposing gathering space for visitors at the end of the Park’s grand formal promenade, the Mall. Vaux, in collaboration with Jacob Wrey Mould, designed Bethesda Terrace, with Mould designing the base and octagonal basin of the architectural centerpiece: the Bethesda Fountain.

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Bethesda Fountain commemorates a landmark moment for public health: The building of the Croton Aqueduct increased access to clean water and helped reduce the spread of disease.

While most of the Terrace was completed by the late 1860s, the Fountain remained unfinished. It needed a crown jewel, and Henry Stebbins—the board president and chairman of the Standing Committee on Structures, Architecture, and Fountains—conveniently knew an artist fit for the job. His sister, Emma Stebbins, was a talented American sculptor working in Rome, and in an act of obvious nepotism, the commission was awarded to Emma.

Emma Stebbins defied conventional constraints for Victorian women

From a young age, Emma Stebbins showed artistic promise. A member of a wealthy family with access to ample opportunities, she was well educated and exposed to a variety of creative pursuits. Going against expectations for Victorian women of her class, Emma had professional ambitions early in life and successfully exhibited her paintings.

“She was stuck at that interesting cusp that a lot of women were stuck at in the 19th century: They were working at an advanced level, but because of their social class or their family dynamics, their ability to work as a professional was mitigated,” said Emma Stebbins’s great-great-great niece, Elizabeth Milroy. Milroy is Professor Emerita of Art History at Drexel University and Wesleyan University and has published extensively about Emma's artwork. “Emma was a talented artist who suddenly finds herself in Rome around age 40 and sees that there’s a way that she can [shed conventional constraints and] stay in Rome.”

Emma moved to Rome in 1856 to study sculpture, where she found an eye-opening community: American women also defying conventions and working as artists. Writer Henry James—famously and patronizingly—described this group as a “strange sisterhood of American ‘lady sculptors’ who at one time settled upon the seven hills in a white, marmorean flock” and a “harem-scarem.” The group’s unofficial leader was the charismatic and beloved American actress, Charlotte Cushman—dubbed “America’s first celebrity” in 2020 by Refinery29. She referred to her largely queer collective of women as “jolly female bachelors.” Among them was Edmonia Lewis, the first African-American and Native-American sculptor to receive international recognition; sculptor Harriet Hosmer; writer and activist Grace Greenwood; and British journalist Matilda Hays.

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A digitized image from the Conservancy’s archive of Emma Stebbins’s signature at the base of Angel of the Waters.

While pursuing her art and enjoying her newfound freedom in Rome, Emma found herself developing a deep, loving connection with Charlotte Cushman. Emma was known to be quiet, private, and self-effacing, describing herself in a letter to a friend as “a soft-shelled crab” and rarely possessing the confidence to promote her own art. Charlotte, on the other hand, was the opposite: an outgoing actress and an intoxicatingly magnetic charmer with a rotating cast of lovers and devotees. The two were drawn together, became a couple, and cohabitated for the rest of their lives.

“Charlotte Cushman [was] the opposite character. Charlotte really pushed her and supported her—as did all the women in Rome; they supported each other, for the most part,” said Melissa Dabakis, Professor Emerita of Art History at Kenyon and author of the book A Sisterhood of Sculptors: American Artists in Nineteenth-Century Rome.

Emma Stebbins and Charlotte Cushman’s “Boston marriage”

At the time, this kind of “companionship” between two women was referred to as a “Boston marriage.” Surprisingly, these relationships weren’t necessarily criminalized or labeled “unholy” or “impure” in the way that same-sex relationships between men were, likely due to Victorian society’s misunderstanding of sexual desire among women.

“Having a Boston marriage was pretty common amongst women,” Central Park Conservancy historian emerita Sara Cedar Miller explained. "In the Victorian age, they didn't think that women either enjoyed sex, wanted sex, or had sex.”

While we have no official record of the sexual nature of Charlotte and Emma’s relationship, we know they held a caring and passionate love for one another and even exchanged “unofficial” vows. In 1858, Charlotte asks in a letter to a companion, “Do you not know that I am already married and wear the badge upon the third finger of my left hand?”

In an obituary for Emma Stebbins published in 2019 as a series on the unreported lives and deaths of important LGBTQ+ figures, the New York Times described the beautiful life Emma and Charlotte shared together in Rome. “The pair gave lavish dinner parties and waffle breakfasts for the group at their home, and were known to wear black bowler hats and ride their horses to the Villa Borghese for picnics of red wine and cheese.”

A lasting legacy of love

After receiving the commission for Angel of the Waters, Emma followed a common process for sculptors of the era who worked in bronze. She began by drafting sketches which she then used to create models, parsing through her designs with smaller clay versions of what would become the final sculpture. From there, she worked up to clay and eventually to a plaster of Paris—quick-setting gypsum plaster—which is what she sent to the foundry to be cast in the final statue. Though her work on Bethesda Fountain was not in stone, when Emma did work with stone, she notably did the carving herself. This was somewhat unusual for sculptors at the time. “The stone dust and everything was dangerous and probably hard work, but she was really committed to it,” Miller said.

When planning for Bethesda Fountain, Vaux wrote that the decorations should reflect “both earnestly and playfully the idea of that central spirit of ‘love’ that is forever active, and forever bringing science and art, summer and winter, youth and age, day and night into harmonious accord.”

In the Fountain’s final design, streams of water spout from the rock on which an angel alights, cascading into a large basin that overflows into a wide reflecting pool. Four putti, or cherubs, peak out from behind the uppermost veils of water. Three putti each symbolize benefits of water: purity, health, and temperance. The fourth, "peace," celebrates the conclusion of the Civil War. The angel is a reference from the Gospel of John that alludes to the healing properties of water. The biblical miracle describes Jerusalem’s Pool of Bethesda. In it, “a great multitude [of] withered” sufferers are cured of their ailments and diseases when an angel blesses the water.

“An angel descending to bless the water for healing seems not inappropriate in connection with a fountain, for although we do not have sad groups of blind, halt, and withered waiting to be healed by the miraculous advent of the angel, we have no less healing, comfort, and purification, freely sent to us through the blessed gift of pure, wholesome water, which to all the countless home of this great city, comes like an angel visitant, not at stated seasons only, but day by day,” Emma wrote in the program for the statue’s dedication.

At the time of the statue’s dedication, Emma’s connection to healing and water was personal. Charlotte was fighting breast cancer, and she had largely stepped away from her art and career to care for her. On top of having two surgeries and experimenting with other grizzlier forms of 19th-century medicine, Charlotte had attempted a popular treatment of the day: water cures. Due to a common Victorian belief that water had purifying and healing properties, patients often soaked in water of various temperatures, drank large quantities of water, or wrapped in wet compresses, sheets, belts, or dresses in attempt to cure their diseases. She died in 1876, just three years after the dedication. Emma devoted the rest of her life to writing a biography of Charlotte. Emma writes about her grief and reflects on her love in a letter to a friend:

“I lived with the embodied principle of love so many years that it became a part of being and has grown intensive more and more since it was taken away from me,” she wrote. “I am thinking of Charlotte as I mostly am—and speculating on the peculiar gift which makes some proper magnetic, and how wonderfully above anyone of her day and generation she was endowed with it.”

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A photo of Emma Stebbins’s gravestone in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.

Despite a lack of concrete historical evidence, there has long been speculation that Emma modeled Angel of the Waters after her lover. Though the facial resemblance is nowhere near as exact as the bust Emma made of Charlotte several years earlier, the tangible spirit of love and healing present in the work’s origin story make it easy to contemplate the ways in which Charlotte and their romance may have influenced Emma’s work on the piece.

“[Charlotte’s] personality sort of overwhelms. What’s always fascinated me about the Angel is that it has that presence. I think what makes it so imposing is that when you stand beside the Fountain, you really feel like you're in the presence of a powerful personality,” Elizabeth Milroy said. “I wonder if Stebbins was able to really imbue the figure with some of that powerful personality.”

Whether the statue’s figure was intentionally modeled after Charlotte or not, both Emma’s embodied principle of love and Charlotte’s magnetic gift live on in the presence of Angel of the Waters 150 years later. Their relationship may not have been seen for what it was in its time, but their connection still lingers in the heart of the Park, an immovable symbol of love as millions of visitors gather around it to relax, connect, and heal—embodying the core purpose of Central Park.

Amileah Sutliff is Senior Writer and Editor at the Central Park Conservancy.