At the top of the Fountain is the sculpture Angel of the Waters, a bronze figure of a robed angel with raised wings. She delicately steps on a stone which spouts forth water. The water cascades down from the sculpture into two basins and fills a large circular pool.
While all the other works of arts and monuments were donated to the Park, Angel of the Waters is the only artwork in Central Park’s collection that was commissioned by the Park’s designers and administrators. The design for the Terrace always included a central fountain, as well as a series of statues that were never realized. The pool and lower basin were created first, based on a design by Park architect Jacob Wrey Mould. The commission for the addition of bronze statuary was awarded to the American sculptor Emma Stebbins. Stebbins modeled the figure of the angel after her partner, the actress Charlotte Cushman.
It’s this fountain that gave the area the name of Bethesda. 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.
The Fountain commemorates the opening of the Croton Aqueduct, which first brought fresh water to New York City in 1842. Clean water was “healing” to New Yorkers, who had suffered through numerous devastating disease outbreaks because of contaminated drinking water. 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. This monument to clean water was fitting for the City’s first large public park, which was also intended to benefit public health by providing access to fresh air and opportunities for exercise and relaxation.
Stebbins was the first woman to receive a public art commission in New York City. But she is not the only female artist represented in Central Park. Other monuments by women include Sally James Farnham’s statue of Simón Bolívar, Anna Hyatt Huntington’s statue of José Julián Martí, and Meredith Bergmann’s Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument, which was dedicated in 2020.
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