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Public Statues and Sculpture Association

Emma and the Angel of Central Park. The Story of a New York Icon and the Woman who Created It by Maria Teresa Cometto

This talk celebrates the publication of the English language edition of Maria Teresa Cometto’s book Emma and the Angel of Central Park. The Story of a New York Icon and the Woman who Created It (Bordighera Press). This is the first ever biography of Emma Stebbins, the artist who created the Angel of the Waters, on top of Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. The statue was inaugurated 150 years ago, on May the 31st, 1873.

Emma Stebbins was the first woman to receive a public art commission from New York City. She was a New Yorker, but from 1856 to 1870 lived in Rome, where she created the Angel statue. Her life was special: she was ‘married’ to the actress Charlotte Cushman, and belonged to ‘that strange sisterhood of American “lady sculptors” who at one time settled upon the seven hills in a white marmorean flock,’ as Henry James described it.

At that time American women sculptors were attracted by the enormous heritage of antiquities they could study by visiting the Vatican Museums, the Capitoline Museums, and Villa Borghese. But there were also technical, professional, and personal reasons for choosing to move to Rome.

Emma Stebbins’s works were surprisingly modern and anticipated trends that would take hold long afterwards. Such are the marble statues Industry and Commerce, currently at the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington Village, Long Island, New York. Emma was the first among American sculptors to take two workers as her subjects — a miner and a sailor — and depict them realistically, in their everyday clothes, while celebrating them as classical heroes.

Emma Stebbins was very reserved and left few traces of herself. To reconstruct her life, Maria Teresa Cometto engaged in in-depth research between New York and Rome, managing to speak with two of Emma’s descendants. The result is also a portrait of the two cities and sheds light on the thread that linked progressive Americans and Italians from those years: the movement against slavery in the U.S. and the Risorgimento in Italy.

Maria Teresa Cometto is a journalist and author based in New York City. She was born in Novara, Italy, and graduated cum Laude from Milan’s Universitá Statale with a degree in Philosophy of Science. Since 1994, she has worked for the leading Italian daily Corriere della Sera and has also written several books. In 2000, she moved to New York City with her family. On 2 June 2017, she was awarded the title ‘Cavaliere (Knight) dell’Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana’ for her activism in promoting the Italian culture and language in America. In 2018, she became a US citizen after getting the green card as ‘alien with extraordinary ability’.

Event information

Emma and the Angel of Central Park. The Story of a New York Icon and the Woman who Created It by Maria Teresa Cometto
An online Zoom talk, free for PSSA Members. £3.50 for non-members (join the PSSA).

Free tickets and charged tickets book via Eventbrite.

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Emma Stebbins, Angel of the Waters, 1862-63. From the scrapbook of her sister, Mary Stebbins Garland.

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