Monday, October 10, 2016

Central Park's Lost Statue of Commerce

A stereopticon slide depicted the statue in a well manicured setting.

Construction of Central Park began in 1858 and would continue throughout the Civil War.  Although the park was not substantially completed until 1873; it was a destination for city dwellers by the early 1860s.  The first public artwork installed in the park was most likely Christophe Fratin's Eagles and Prey, unveiled in 1863 and donated by Gordon Webster Burnham.

Close on its heels would be another donation.   On April 19, 1866 The New York Herald commented on "new features" of the Park.  It informed readers of a "massive bridge across the valley" which had been completed, new flower beds, and the drives and walks near the Harlem Lake scheduled "to be thrown open to promenaders and equestrians by the time the Saturday afternoon concerts shall have been inaugurated for the season."

The article also noted "A very handsome attraction has been added to the Park, by the erection of the statue of 'Commerce,' near the Eighth avenue entrance, which has been named the 'Merchants' Gate.'  This statue is of bronze, and stands on a granite pedestal.  It is a finely wrought figure, and was presented to the Park by Mr. Guion, an eminent merchant of Liverpool, England."

The brief mention was a bit overdue.  The statue by Paris sculptor Jules Fesquet had been presented eight months earlier, in August 1865.  Its donor, Stephen B. Guion, was born in New York City; but had moved to Liverpool and garnered a fortune there years earlier.

Stereopticon image from the collection of the New York Public Library

Fesquet's allegorical statue depicted Commerce as a rather portly female in Roman dress wearing a corn headdress.  In her left hand she held a caduceus while the other arm rested on a ship's rudder.  While the New York Herald had diplomatically deemed the work "finely wrought;" other critics were quick to pan it.

On August 19, 1866 The New York Times was brutal in its assessment.  "It represents a well-formed lady in her robe de nuif, with a milk-pail on her head, two snakes in one hand, a butcher's cleaver in the other, her eyes set and her toes visible.  The lady is considerably 'set up' on an elevated pedestal, which may account for the wild look of her eyes and the scarcity of her attire."

In 1869 Putnam's Magazine opined "We we think the Commissioners ought to pass a law protecting themselves as well as the public from the rise of being fathered with such platitudes as the statue of Commerce."

Two years later, on July 2, 1871, The New York Herald retracted its initial compliment.  It joined the callous chorus and wondered why "had it come all the way from France" when the "simply commonplace" statue could have been produced "by any one of our less pretentious American sculptors."  The article jibed that the ears of corn in Commerce's hair gave "the idea of a pair of budding horns."

The Herald's critic went on to call the figure "decidedly short and dumpy" and hinted that the masses of drapery were "no doubt put on to save the artist the trouble of flesh modelling."  And he strongly criticized the statue's lack of balance.  He noted that "the somewhat muscular lady...sustains herself by placing a strong right arm on the rudder, which forms an excellent support."  Calling it a "three-legged arrangement," the writer said without the rudder the awkward pose "it would be sure to come to grief," or topple over.

Albert Finch Bellows produced the above sketch for Clarence Cook's 1869 A Description of the New York Central Park (copyright expired)

The Herald went on to say that the statue was "wanting in that unspeakable feminine grace that is ever visible in the strong, dignified woman."  In fact, "the force and dignity expressed in the statue of 'Commerce' reminds us rather of a gladiator in theatrical repose, silently displaying his muscle, than of a noble and graceful woman."

To make certain his point was made, the critic said flatly and "in addition to many defects of execution, [it] is unpardonably vulgar in conception."  Further, the artist "exhibits either great carelessness or lamentable ignorance of the anatomy of the human form."

Anticipating possible backlash from some readers, the writer added "If we have somewhat severely criticised the work of M. Fesquet, at least we have not 'set down aught in malice,' and in truth, we have left a great many things unsaid."

A group of tourists pauses by the statue.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

That same year Clarence Cook published his A Description of the New York Central Park.  He was no less critical of the Statue of Commerce.  He described is as "a mere commonplace emblematic figure, such as are all the time being produced in French studios, but which have very little meaning or interest for the great masses of people, and for artists none at all of either."  He added "It certainly is very much to be wished that the respected donor had given us something else."

On May 28, 1890 The Evening World took took a joking swipe at the Statue of Commerce, saying "The figure just within the entrance to the west drive at Eighth avenue and Fifty-ninth street, which is frequently mistaken for a statue of Mary Anderson, was intended for an ideal statue of Commerce."  The reference was to the popular stage actress noted for her classical roles in which she appeared in Roman costumes.
Mary Anderson in her role as Hermione.  photo by Henry Van der Weyde, from the collection of the Library of Congress

The passage of time did not warm art critics to the besieged statue.  In May 1899 Layton Crippen lumped it with some other statues in Central Park "where many of the worst specimens in the city are even now resting in comparatively harmless desuetude."

A much less intentional affront to the statue occurred on May 26, 1903.  A headline in The Evening World the following day read "Automobile Tried To Climb A Statue."   Cornelius Beck and Simeon Gaunt were on their way home and decided to go through the park.  The newspaper related "As they left Eighth avenue and whirled into the park something went wrong with the steering gear.  The machine left the road and dashed into the monument."  Although the car "was badly smashed" and the men were tossed to the ground, the Statue of Commerce seems to have survived the incident unscathed.

Nevertheless, it was the target of other humiliation caused neither by out-of-control automobiles nor acerbic art critics.   Four months after the accident the Parks Department cleaned the statue.  The Sun reported on September 18 "From Fresquet's statue of Commerce at Fifth-ninth street and the Circle the cleaners gathered large quantities of cigar butts, a number of spikes, a hose coupling and many twigs and leaves.  The cigar butts have probably been contributed through several years by cab drivers as they drove by.  The statue was also much defaced by bird lime."

E. & H. T. Anthony & Co. published the above stereoscopic image in the late 19th century.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
Despite its long tradition of artistic censure, the Statue of Commerce remained a fixture near the Columbus Circle entrance to the Park.  Despite its toppling in 1925 when  a taxi cab crashed into it; it had been restored when Rian James published his 1931 All About New York, An Intimate Guide.  But then it disappeared.

It is possible that the Statue of Commerce fell victim to President Franklin Roosevelt's War Production Board.  On August 7, 1942 Roosevelt endorsed a program to scrap bronze statues and recycle their metal into weapons of war.

The New York Times explained "At his press conference he agreed with reporters that some of the statues and the guns used as monuments would serve a more useful purpose if junked...Some of the statues, he said with a smile, could be replaced after the war with--and here he paused to cough apologetically--something more artistic."

Whether the the much maligned Statue of Commerce was melted for the war effort or not is unsure.  What is certain is that around the time of the war it disappeared and the mystery remains unsolved.

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