“Women’s Rights Pioneers” Sculpture in Central Park by Meredith Bergmann, header photo by Sophie Elgort
Whenever I walk through Central Park, what stood out to me was the lack of women sculptures, yet many statues are scattered on the perimeter and throughout the park. As of 2022, only in one place will you see a statue of historical women, and the first to join the 22 statues of historical men in the park is the “Women’s Rights Monument” by Meredith Bergmann, unveiled in 2020 for the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. I interviewed Meredith Bergmann for the latest episode of my podcast “Trail Blazer Women in Arts, Real Estate, Politics, & More” You can listen to the episode here with accompanying visuals below (photos by Sophie Elgort are also on Apple Podcasts) or wherever you listen to podcasts. Although unbeknownst to most this work is not the only testament to famous women artist. Women Sculptures have made work and supported works in NYC over time and history and in more recent years we have this to add making in Real!
Though you might not know if from looking at them, some of the sculptures of historical men on display in the park were created by women artists. You might assume that sculptures of war heroes commissioned in the 20th century were created by male sculptors, but as you have now learned, that is not the case. Two of the trio of South American heroes installed at the Avenue of the Americas entrance to Central Park in the mid-20th century were made by women: the sculpture of Latin American leader General Simon Bolivar was made by Sally James Farnham and that of Cuban patriot José Julián Martí by Anna Vaughn Hyatt Huntington. How many of the millions of people that walk by that plaza every year know that those statues were created by women? Of the 91 works of art in Central Park, four “significant” statues were made by women. Did you know that the famous Bethesda Fountain aka Angel of the Waters was itself made by an angel, New York artist Emma Stebbins?
After entering Central Park, we journeyed back to contemporary art with Bharti Kher’s Ancestor, put up by the Public Art Fund in 2022. As we go further north in Central Park, we encountered earlier examples of women.
Even before real women were immortalized in statuary, women were major financial sponsors of the park. A great example of this is in Central Park’s Conservatory Garden, the park’s only formal garden. The wrought iron Vanderbilt Gate through which you enter the garden was donated by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. In the North Garden stands the Untermyer Fountain with the Three Dancing Maidens sculpture by Walter Schott honors Samuel Untermyer and Minnie Untermyer, prominent civic-minded New Yorkers and women’s suffrage supporters. Though the statue does not depict real historical figures, it is still an example of public representation of women funded by a woman. The Untermeyers also donated part of their estate in Yonkers to create a public garden today known as the Untermyer Gardens.
In the South Garden stands the Burnett Fountain, which memorializes The Secret Garden and A Little Princess author Frances Hodgson Burnett. The central sculpture by woman artist Bessie Potter Vonnoh does not depict Burnett herself but rather characters inspired by The Secret Garden: a boy playing the flute and a girl with a birdbath. (This part of the garden is currently undergoing restoration but will hopefully be visitable by the public again soon!)
At the northwest corner of Central Park at the intersection of Central Park North and Central Park West, I encountered a sculpture by the team Gabriel Koren who made the sculpture and Algernon Miller, this time of a famous man Frederick Douglass. Here you see a rendering discussed on Glanzrock Trailblazer Women previous podcast episode featuring artist Vinny Bagwell who was commissioned to replace the sculpture of gynecologist J. Marion Sims with a new work to replace it called “Victory Beyond Sims.” The original statue of Sims was removed due to his practice of experimenting on enslaved black women. Bagwell’s sculptural response depicts a triumphant angel with a sisterhood of black women woven in. This sculpture plans to be placed along the perimeter of the park at 103rd street and Fifth Avenue.
Bergmann’s newest sculpture “Women’s Rights Pioneers” commemorates the long history of the U.S. women’s rights movement through its portrayal of activists (left to right below) Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton gathered around a table. Each of their roles within the movement is highlighted: Sojourner Truth, perhaps best known for her compelling “Ain’t I a Woman” speech, is shown speaking; Susan B. Anthony, who led a number of organizations including the National American Women’s Suffrage Association, is shown organizing and engaging with her fellow organizer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the author of the pivotal 1848 Declaration of Sentiments at the Seneca Falls Convention.
The statue was sponsored by Monumental Women, an organization focused on emphasizing the accomplishments of women throughout history in public spaces. The selection of these three figures shows not only the accomplishments but also the complicated history of the women’s rights movement. In the early 19th century, advocates of women’s suffrage were equally invested in the movement for the abolition of slavery, as they felt a common cause towards equality for women and people of color. However, once the Fifteenth Amendment passed enfranchising black men, some white women’s suffrage activists felt snubbed and the movement began to split. This monument stands proudly in on literary walk in Central Park as a wonderful testament, educational and conversation piece for years to come.
Beyond Central Park, in addition to her Pioneers monument, Bergmann also created the FDR Hope Memorial in Southpoint Park on Roosevelt Island. It is the first sculpture of FDR ever to focus on his disability and shows him smiling and reaching out to a girl with crutches. Another woman sculptor, Penelope Jencks created the monument of Eleanor Roosevelt in the nearby Riverside Park.
Women are behind new public art installations in Grand Central Madison, the new LIRR station opening later this month. The Art Newspaper reported on the new mosaic murals by Yayoi Kusama and Kiki Smith.
Kusama created one huge mural, one of which can be seen on the right, while Smith crafted a series of five smaller murals between tracks, two of which can be seen below. (These murals were just featured in the Sunday Times.) Have you been to see them yet? Comment below if you have another favorite piece of public art by a woman (in NYC or elsewhere)!