Thursday, July 27, 2023

The 1934 Prometheus Sculpture - Rockefeller Center


photo by David Shankbone

In 1918 Paul Howard Manship completed a bronze bust of  John D. Rockefeller, Sr.  The sculptor had been recommended to the millionaire by portrait artist John Singer Sargent.  Unfortunately, Rockefeller hated the finished piece and refused to have it displayed.  John D. Rockefeller, Jr. later explained, "Father feels so strongly that the bust gives an impression of weakness."  The younger Rockefeller, however, disagreed, saying, "If I were contemplating having a bust made myself, I should be inclined to select Mr. Manship."

Paul Manship, from the collection of the Library of Congress

As Rockefeller formulated plans for his 22-acre Rockefeller Center, the sculptor came to mind.  According to Daniel Okrent, in his 2002 book Great Fortune, The Epic of Rockefeller Center:

Given Junior's regard for's little wonder that Manship was granted the most prominent outdoor spot for his piece, a fountain to be placed at the western end of a sunken plaza, down the long axis of the Channel Gardens where the eye stops before racing up the facade of the RCA Building.  His subject was Prometheus, the god who gave fire to mankind.

With little fanfare, on January 19, 1934 The New York Times reported, "The giant central figure of Prometheus was set in place yesterday in the fountain group which constitutes the chief decorative feature of the sunken plaza of Rockefeller Center."  Manship's 18-foot tall, eight-ton Prometheus could be seen from Fifth Avenue.  The god is captured plummeting to earth through a ring 
inscribed with the signs of the zodiac that depicts the heavens.  Below him are mountain peaks and the fountain pool, representing the sea.  Held in his upraised hand is the gift of flame.

Prometheus was originally not alone.  The New York Times added, "Two smaller bronze figures, completing the fountain group, recently were set in ledges on each side of the upper basin."  Along the granite wall behind the grouping, a quotation from Aeschylus reads: "Prometheus, teacher in every art, brought the fire that hath proved to mortals a means to mighty ends."

Manship's two gilded figures, Youth and Maiden, representing mankind receiving the fire, originally flanked Prometheus.  photo by Carl Van Vechten, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

About a year after the grouping was set in place, Manship had misgivings.  In 1935 he told Rockefeller Center Weekly that he felt he had been "hurried" by the one-year schedule he was given, and said, "I'd naturally welcome the opportunity of doing the whole fountain group over again."  Around the same time, Youth and Maiden were removed.  The New York Times reported later, "Manship had second thoughts about their placement and felt that they detracted from Prometheus."  Their gilt finishes were covered with a bronze patina and they were placed in the Palazzo d'Italia garden above the International Building.

Manship was not the only person who questioned Prometheus.  Although some critics, like Edward Alden Jewel of The New York Times, praised it (he called it "a genuine masterpiece, beautiful in its rhythm"), others like Frank Craven deemed the sculpture "a boudoir knickknack."  It was generally the subject of derision.  

Daniel Okrent wrote, "From the day of its unveiling [Prometheus] was considered more of an amusement than a work of art."  He explained, "A critic said Prometheus 'look[s] like he [has] just sprung from a bowl of hot soup,'" and said the sculpture "quickly acquired a variety of nicknames and variety of bemused characterizations: he was 'Leapin' Louie,' who looked like the Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze," or maybe a "young man escaping from his marriage ties."  In his August 14, 1942 syndicated column, Walter Winchell mentioned the statue "which a wag once labeled 'Sliding into Second.'"

On April 17, 1940, workmen prepared to turn the fountain on again after being shut down for the winter.  They were surprised to discover that two pair of birds had beaten them to the site.  The workers found two nests with eggs nestled in crannies of the Prometheus statue.  New Yorkers and tourists would have to wait weeks to enjoy the running waters.  The Times Record of Troy, New York reported, "Nelson Rockefeller, president of the center, ordered that they were not to be disturbed until the eggs hatched, which will be some time in May."

An interesting and short-lived scheme was introduced in the summer of 1941.  The Little Falls Herald reported, "The baby sea lions that have been placed in the Prometheus Fountain at Rockefeller Center for the amusement of diners at the adjoining Promenade Outdoor Cafe has [sic] impressed."

The Prometheus fountain was the victim of a college-type prank in 1956.  On July 9, The Times Record reported, "Prometheus, the god of fire, took a bubble bath yesterday, when someone poured a liquid cleanser in the fountain at the base of his gilded statue in Rockefeller Center."

In 1958, The New York Times explained that the statue "receives an annual cleaning before Good Friday."  Its tissue-thin coating of 24-karat gold required frequent maintenance.  The laborious process of regilding was first done in 1947, then again in 1958, 1974, and 1983.

On April 8, 1984, The New York Times reported that Youth and Maiden "are being cleansed of a half-century of weather-encrusted grit and will be restored to their places beside the 18-foot figure of Prometheus this week."  The move coincided with a major renovation of the plaza to accommodate three new restaurants.  The six-foot sculptures did not stay, however.  In 2001 they were moved to the top of the staircase to the plaza, at the western end of the Channel Gardens.

Maiden originally gilded, sat at the right of Prometheus in 1934.  photograph by Elisa.rolle

Once derided as a joke, Paul Manship's Prometheus is today beloved.  According to Daniel Okrent, "Prometheus became arguably the fourth most famous piece of sculpture in America, trailing only...the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, and Daniel Chester French's seated Lincoln in Washington."

photo by Rob Young

Nevertheless, one critic who never warmed up to the artwork was its creator.  When asked what he thought of it in 1959, Paul Manship said, "I don't like it too well, no.  I don't think too well of it." has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog


  1. Wonderful article about this iconic NYC treasure. Thanks, Tom.

    1. My father Elio Tami was part of the "Re-gilding " process of Prometheus. He originally worked for Mack Jenny and Tyler Decorators and eventually started his own company of Crown Decorating.