Emma Stebbins

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Emma Stebbins

Emma Stebbins (1 September 1815 – 25 October 1882) was an American sculptor. She is best known for her work “The Angel of the Waters” (1873), also known as “Bethesda Fountain,” located on the Bethesda Terrace in Central Park, New York.[1][2]


Stebbins was born in New York City to a wealthy family who encouraged by her pursuit of art from an early age. In 1857, her brother Col. Henry G. Stebbins (head of the New York Stock Exchange) sponsored her to move 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 was able to become involved in the bohemian and feminist lesbian lifestyle, which was far less acceptable in New York.[3] Stebbins fell in love with actress Charlotte Cushman. 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 and other lesbians, such as Harriet Hosmer.[3]

In 1869, Cushman was treated for breast cancer. Stebbins devoted all her time to nursing Cushman, 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 spent her final years producing 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.[3]


Angel of the Waters

One of Stebbins' early commissions was a portrait bust of Cushman between 1859-1860.

Her bronze statue of educator Horace Mann was installed outside the State House in Boston in 1865.

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 was 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.


Most of what is known of Stebbins is due to the efforts of her older sister Mary Stebbins Garland, who documented her sister's life posthumously in a biography and a scrapbook. The unpublished biography is entitled "Notes on the Art Life of Emma Stebbins" (1888). In the scrapbook, Garland arranged images of Stebbins' works created between 1857 and 1870 in chronological order, noting the titles and dates of execution of each work. She included photographs of Stebbins and of people who had encouraged her career (such as her teacher Paul Akers, Henry Stebbins, and Charlotte Cushman), newspaper clippings and handwritten biographical notes.[2]

Emma Stebbins, her brother Henry and other family members are buried at Green-Wood Cemetery, in Brooklyn, New York.

On June 14, 2014, 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.[4][5]


  1. ^ "Emma Stebbins". to work as a sculptor. Woman Sculptors. March 4, 2009.
  2. ^ a b Milroy, Elizabeth (1993). "The Public Career of Emma Stebbins: Work in Marble". Archives of American Art Journal. The Smithsonian Institution. 33 (3). JSTOR 1557502.
  3. ^ a b c Corinne, Tee A. (2002). "Stebbins, Emma". glbtq.com. Archived from the original on 2007-11-09. Retrieved 2007-11-30.
  4. ^ * "Gay Green-Wood Trolley Tour"
  5. ^ "The Gay Graves Tour" June 14, 2014.
  • 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).

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