EMMA STEBBINS, American sculptor, died (b: 1815); Born and raised in a wealthy New York family, Stebbins was encouraged by her family in her pursuit of art from an early age. In 1857, sponsored by her brother Col. Henry G. Stebbins, head of the New York Stock Exchange, she moved to Rome where she studied under John Gibson an English neo-classicist working there at that time. In Rome she fell in love with actress Charlotte Cushman, and quickly became involved in the bohemian and feminist lesbian life, which was more tolerated there than it would have been back in New York.
Cushman was confidant, strong, and charismatic, and recently recovering from a break up following a ten-year relationship with the actress Matilda Hays. Cushman and Stebbins began travelling together, immediately taking a trip to Naples. Upon their return, they began spending time in a circle of fellow lesbians that included sculptor Harriet Hosmer and African-American/Native American American sculptor Edmonia Lewis/Mary Lewis. In this environment, the women flourished without regard for showing outward affection for one another.
One of Stebbins’ early commissions was a portrait bust of Cushman between 1859-1860. In 1869, Cushman was treated for breast cancer. Stebbins devoted all her time during that ordeal to nursing her lover, ignoring her work during the next two years. The following year, the couple returned to the United States. Cushman died of pneumonia in 1876 at the age of 59.
Her most famous statue is the “Angel of the Waters” at the Bethesday Fountain in Central Park, the first woman to be commissioned for a public statue in New York. The eight-foot-tall angel stands with one foot outstretched upon the upper basin of the fountain, wings spread wide and robes flowing behind her. In one hand, she holds a lily, while the other is extended in a gesture of benediction. The basin on which she stands shelters four cherubs representing health, purity, temperance and peace.
Stebbins based the sculpture on the biblical story of the angel who imbues the waters of Bethesda with healing powers; it was conceived as a tribute to the Croton Aqueduct, which brought fresh water to the city beginning in 1842. It was modeled on her lover, Charlotte Cushman.
“An angel descending to bless the water for healing,” Stebbins wrote in the program for the sculpture’s unveiling, “seems not inappropriate in connection with a fountain; for, although we have not the 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 homes of this great city, comes like an angel visitant.”
Following the death of Cushman, Stebbins never produced another sculpture. She released the correspondence, Charlotte Cushman: Her Letters and Memories of Her Life in 1878. Stebbins died in New York in 1882, at the age of 67.