Emma Stebbins (1 September 1815 – 25 October 1882) was among the first notable American woman sculptors.
Stebbins was born and died in New York City. Raised in a wealthy New York family, she 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 moved in with sculptor Harriet Hosmer, who had established herself there in 1852. She studied under John Gibson an English neoclassicist working there at that time. In Rome she fell in love with actress Charlotte Saunders Cushman, and quickly became involved in the bohemian and feminist lesbian lifestyle, which was more tolerated there than it would have been back in New York.
Cushman was confident, strong, and charismatic, and recently recovering from a break up following a ten-year relationship with the actress Matilda Hays. Cushman and Stebbins began traveling together, immediately taking a trip to Naples. Upon their return, they began spending time in a circle that included African American/Native American sculptor Edmonia Lewis, many celebrities, and fellow lesbians that included Harriet Hosmer. 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. 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.
Stebbins best known work is the Angel of the Waters (1873), also known as Bethesda Fountain, located on the Bethesda Terrace in Central Park, New York. According to Central Park historian Sara Cedar Miller, Stebbins received the commission for the sculpture as a result of influence from her brother Henry, who at the time was president of the Central Park Board of Commissioners. Henry was proud of his sister's talent and hoped to have many examples of her art in Central Park.
'Angel of the Waters,' created to celebrate the clean healthful water from New York's Croton Aqueduct, completed in 1842, with an oblique reference to the biblical "healing waters of Bethesda." The fountain complex is widely considered to be one of the great works of nineteenth-century American sculpture.
On June 14, 2014, Miss Stebbins was featured in the first gay-themed tour of Green-Wood Cemetery. Because the headstone of Miss Stebbins is made of marble it has become severely worn away by the weather, making it difficult to read her name, dates, etc., Walk About New York, developer of the Gay Graves Tour, would like to start a campaign to replace it. The woman who has created such an iconic sculpture, such as the Angel of the Water for New York’s Central Park deserves better.
- Opitz, Glenn B, Editor, Mantle Fielding’s Dictionary of American Painters, Sculptors & Engravers, Apollo Book, Poughkeepsie NY, 1986
- Rubenstein, Charlotte Streifer, American Women Sculptors, G.K. Hall & Co., Boston 1990
- Sherwood, Dolly, Harriet Hosmer, American Sculptor 1830-1908, University of Missouri Press, 1991
- "Stebbins, Emma." In Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, (accessed February 9, 2012; subscription required).
- "Gay Green-Wood Trolley Tour" "Green-Wood Cemetery", a National Historic Landmark in Brooklyn.
- "The Gay Graves Tour" "Walk About New York" June 14, 2014.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Emma Stebbins.|
- Official Website Central Park: Angel of the Waters Fountain
- "Stebbins, Emma". Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. 1900.
- Entry for Emma Stebbins on the Union List of Artist Names