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Images in Psychiatry   |    
Angel of the Waters (Bethesda Fountain) by Emma Stebbins
Meredith M. Wortzel, M.A.
Am J Psychiatry 2014;171:509. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2014.14020230
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Ms. Wortzel will present a workshop, “The History of New York City’s Central Park and Its Statuary,” at this year’s annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association.
From the Department of Art, Montana State University–Billings.

Address correspondence to Ms. Wortzel (mwortzel@gmail.com).

Copyright © 2014 by the American Psychiatric Association

Accepted February , 2014.

The Angel of the Waters, more commonly known as the Bethesda Fountain, by Emma Stebbins (1815–1882) is one of the most beloved sculptures in all of New York City’s Central Park. The designers of the park, Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, carefully laid out the park design in their 1858 Greensward Plan, and they believed that artificial additions to the landscape should be as limited as possible. The main focus of the park, they thought, should be the natural landscape (1).

The Bethesda Fountain and Terrace were the only sculptural compositions that were commissioned as part of the original Greensward Plan. The fountain cost over $60,000, which was an extraordinary amount at the time (2). The terrace is such an important aspect of the park design because it spatially joins the lower and upper portions of the park. Emma Stebbins was officially awarded the commission in 1863, and it made her the first woman to receive a major art commission in New York City (3).

Although it is still unclear whose idea the central program of the angel and four cherubs was, the biblical reference seemed appropriate in light of the fact that New Yorkers were still celebrating the fresh water brought to the city by the Croton Aqueduct, built in 1842, and the new reservoirs in the park. The pool of Bethesda is described in John 5:2–4 and was quoted in the brochure at the dedication of the sculpture: “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” (1, 3).

The angel atop the fountain with her widespread wings steps forward with her left leg while she symbolically stirs the waters with her right. She holds a lily in her left hand, which is a symbol of purity. The angel is stylized as a neoclassical figure in composition and attire, though her drapery has great movement in its line. It is form fitting and has an extensive pattern of curves and lines. Four cherubs surround the column above the upper basin and symbolize Temperance, Purity, Health, and Peace. Capitals and a pair of columns support the lower basin of the fountain (2).

When the Angel of the Waters was finally unveiled in 1873 it had a mixed reception among the critics. The substructure of the basin was universally acclaimed, but many critics attacked the angel. Some believed it to be marvelous and a perfect symbol of the preciousness of water, while others believed it to be the least successful work in the park (1, 2). In spite of this fact, today the Bethesda Fountain is one of the main attractions in Central Park. There are many works of art that go unnoticed within the landscape of the park, but this is certainly not one of them.

Milroy  E:  The public career of Emma Stebbins: work in bronze. part two with index.  Archives of American Art Journal 1994; 34:2–14
 
Gayle  M;  Cohen  G:  The Art Commission and the Municipal Art Society Guide to Manhattan’s Outdoor Sculpture .  New York,  Prentice Hall Press, 1988, pp 216
 
New York City Department of Parks and Recreation: Central Park: Bethesda Fountain. http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/centralpark/monuments/114
 
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References

Milroy  E:  The public career of Emma Stebbins: work in bronze. part two with index.  Archives of American Art Journal 1994; 34:2–14
 
Gayle  M;  Cohen  G:  The Art Commission and the Municipal Art Society Guide to Manhattan’s Outdoor Sculpture .  New York,  Prentice Hall Press, 1988, pp 216
 
New York City Department of Parks and Recreation: Central Park: Bethesda Fountain. http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/centralpark/monuments/114
 
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