A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from September 14, 2015
Four Continents at U.S. Custom House—Who posed for America?

The “Four Continents” group of statues (Africa, America, Asia and Europe) by sculptor Daniel Chester French for the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in lower Manhattan were put in place in 1906. An article, “Custom House Statues,” New-York (NY) Daily Tribune, January 14, 1906, does not mention the name of any model.

Who posed for America?

There are four candidates. It is possible that all four models posed. It is possible, for example, that one model posed for the head and another model posed for the rest of the figure. Young women from New York society families were frequently asked to pose as a courtesy, while professional models often did most of the work, without credit.

1. Violet Blossom Conrad
Violet Blossom Conrad, known as the “Girl with the Angel Face,” was a society girl who received early credit. “When the new Custom House building in New York is completed, the marble figure of ‘America’ which will dominate the facade will preserve to coming generations the features of a young woman widely known as the ‘Girl with the Angel Face.’” wrote The Homiletic Review in August 1906. It is a matter of debate whether the face looks like Violet Blossom Conrad. Also, it is possible that she posed for only the face.

2. Mary Elizabeth Sloat
Mary Elizabeth Sloat came from a New York society family, and was known on the stage under the name “Bessie Dudley.” An October 1907 article in the Seattle (WA) Sunday Times about her marriage stated that Sloat had posed for “the new customs house in New York, the largest being the figure of America which stands to the left of the main entrance.”

3. Audrey Munson
Audrey Munson (1891-1996) is the most celebrated model in New York City history. It is known that she posed for Daniel Chester French’s “Memory” statue, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She posed for French’s “Miss Manhattan” and “Miss Brooklyn” statues for the Manhattan Bridge, now located in front of the Brooklyn Museum. Munson possibly posed more for French than for any other sculptor.

Munson’s Wikipedia page lists ten art works with French, but does not list the “Four Continents” group. Some scholars believe that, with a birthday in 1891, a 15-year-old Miss Munson would have been too young at this time.

However, in her newspaper series “Queen of the Artists’ Studios,” it was written in a photo caption on January 1921 that “a statue by D. C. French upon New York’s Custom House, of which she was the inspiration.” (The captioned photo, however, shows “Miss Brooklyn.") An April 1921 article in the series extensively describes the Custom House:

“A view of the whole Custom House building, showing the more important statues on their street pedestals. Miss Munson was the model for each of the feminine figures in these also. A photograph of the group marked A is reproduced on the right. This is “America,” one of the most beautiful and majestic of all the marble groups.”

It is possible that Munson posed “America,” but that she did not pose for the face. Facial recognition is subject for debate.

4. Anne Rainsford French
Anne Rainsford French was the niece of sculptor Daniel Chester French and, it is claimed, the first woman to drive an automobile. She was profiled in Life magazine in September 1952, where it was stated, “Anne posed for this statue representing ‘America,’ created by her great uncle, Daniel Chester French.”

It is probably true that the sculptor French had his niece pose for his “America” statue. How much, if anything, of that shows up in the actual “America” finished statue is open to question.


Wikipedia: Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House
The Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House is a building in New York City built 1902–07 by the federal government to house the duty collection operations for the port of New York. It is located near the southern tip of Manhattan, roughly on the same spot as Fort Amsterdam, the original center of the settlement of New Amsterdam. Its address is 1 Bowling Green. The building is now the home of the George Gustav Heye Center of the National Museum of the American Indian, as well as the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York, and since 2012, it is also the home to the National Archives at New York City.

Wikipedia: Four continents
Europeans in the 16th century divided the world into four continents: Africa, America, Asia and Europe. Each of the four continents was seen to represent its quadrant of the world—Europe in the north, Asia in the east, Africa in the south, and America in the west. This division fit the Renaissance sensibilities of the time, which also divided the world into four seasons, four classical elements, four cardinal directions, four classical virtues, etc.

The four corners of the world refers to the America (the “west"), Europe (the “north"), Asia (the “east"), and Africa (the “south").
(...)
With the confirmed discovery that Australia was an island continent, the theme of the “Four Continents” lost much of its drive, long before a sixth continent, Antarctica, was discovered. The iconography survived as the Four Corners of the World, however, generally in self-consciously classicizing contexts: for instance, in New York, in front of the Beaux-Arts Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House (1907), four sculptural groups by Daniel Chester French symbolize the “Four Corners of the World.”

New York Architecture
ALEXANDER HAMILTON CUSTOM HOUSE (originally U.S. Custom House) Landmark
architect Cass Gilbert
location One Bowling Green, between State and Whitehall Streets.
date 1899 - 1907
style Beaux-Arts
(...)
Art scholars consider French’s “Continents” to be perhaps the best examples of architecture sculpture in the United States. Each of the four “Continents” are rich in imagry and detail. Each represent a view of the continents through French’s early 20th century lens: Asia and Africa are still cloaked in mystery, Europe is in the waning years of its colonial conquests, and America (representing primarily the United States) is emerging as a new, vibrant society. Click on the images below for photos of each of the “Continents” as well as commentary on the images which make up each group.

Google Books
August 1906, The Homiletic Review, pg. 158, col. 2:
The Angel Face.—When the new Custom House building in New York is completed, the marble figure of “America” which will dominate the facade will preserve to coming generations the features of a young woman widely known as the “Girl with the Angel Face.” The same countenance may be seen duplicated in Blashfield’s great allegorical painting, “Progress,” which adorns the interior of Iowa’s new State capitol at Des Moines. It is the face of Miss Violet Blossom Conrad, the daughter of an army officer, and from the time of her debut at a reception given by Mrs. Nelson A. Miles a few years ago, she has been called the Girl with the Angel Face.

14 January 1907, The Sun (Baltimore, MD), “Wed at Surprise Party,” pg. 1, col. 5:
New York, Jan. 13.—As the climax of a surprise birthday party given for her tonight in the Hotel Knickerbocker, Broadway and Forty second street, Miss Violet Blossom Conrad, daughter of the late Major Casper II. Conrad, of the Eighth United States Infantry, turned the tables of unexpectedness on her assembled friends by being married then and there to Charles Ridgely Ellicott, a mining engineer, son of H. William Ellicott of Baltimore.
(...)
Because of her rare beauty Miss Conrad has been characterized as “the girl with the angel face” by such artists and sculptors as Blashfield, Alphonse Mucha, Daniel French, Anderson and Christie. In Blashfield’s panel “Progress” in the State House at Des Moines, Iowa, Miss Conrad is represented as a triplicity of angels. Her face has also been done in marble by French in the statue symbolic of America on the new customs building in this city.

13 October 1907, Seattle (WA) Sunday Times, pg. 34, col. 1:
MRS. WALTER DEFFENBAUGH
One of the latest additions to the colony of Seattle brides is Mrs. Walter Deffenbaugh, formerly Miss Mary Elizabeth Sloat, of New York, known on thestage and in artists’ studios as Bessie Dudley. They were married in Tacoma on September 18 at the residence of Rev. Hutchinson and are now at The Lincoln.

Mrs. Deffenbaugh posed for the heads of many of the sculpted figures of the new buildings of the college in New York and the new customs house in New York, the largest being the figure of America which stands to the left of the main entrance. She has also posed for Daniel Chester French, Blashfield, Flanagan, Balfour Ker, Heynemann, Wenzell, Francis David Millet, Carroll Beckwith, Carl Blenner and Francis Jones.

Google News Archive
23 January 1921, Pittsburg (PA) Sunday Press, “By the’Queen of the Artists’ Studios’” by Audrey Munson, The American Weekly, pg. 6, col. 2 photo caption:
An interesting photograph of Audrey Munson, and a statue by D. C. French upon New York’s Custom House, of which she was the inspiration.
(The statue shown is not from the Custom House. It is “Miss Brooklyn”—also by Daniel Chester French—that was originally at the Manhattan Bridge, but was moved to the front of the Brooklyn Museum.—ed.)

3 April 1921, Philadelphia (PA) Inquirer, “By the’Queen of the Artists’ Studios’” by Audrey Munson, The American Weekly, pg. 5, col. 2 photo cations:
The frieze of heroic statues around the New York Custom House, made by the noted sculptor, Daniel French. For all the feminine figures in this group Miss Munson was the model. Each group represents a nation.
(...)
A view of the whole Custom House building, showing the more important statues on their street pedestals. Miss Munson was the model for each of the feminine figures in these also. A photograph of the group marked A is reproduced on the right. This is “America,” one of the most beautiful and majestic of all the marble groups.

New York (NY) Times
AUDREY MUNSON IS OUT OF DANGER; Model Who Attempted Suicide by Poison Will Recover. Her Physician Says. PENITENT, WANTS TO LIVE Says Powerful Influences Persecute Her--Silent About a Telegram Believed From Fiance.
Special to The New York Times
May 29, 1922
Section , Page 7, Column , words
[ DISPLAYING ABSTRACT ]
SYRACUSE, N.Y., May 28.--Audrey Munson, famed as an artist’s model also known as a motion picture actress, who attempted to end her life by swallowing a solution of bichloride of mercury at her home in Mexico, Oswego County, yesterday afternoon, was today pronounced out of danger by her attending physician.
(...)
Among Important works for for which Miss Munson has posed are Adolph A. Weinman’s statue of Civic Fame, which tops the Municipal Building: an elaborate stained glass composition by J. and R. Lamb, in which she appears as a winged angel; an enormous Herter tapestry in the George Vanderbilt country home at Biltmore, N. C., and a statue by D. C. French on the New York Custom House.

Google Books
8 September 1952, Life magazine. pg. 83, col. 1:
The First Woman Driver
A.A.A. HONORS MOTORIST WHO GOT LICENSE IN 1900, NEVER HAD A DENT
By MILTON LEHMAN
(Mrs. Walter M. Bush, or Anne Rainsford French.—ed.)
Pg. 84, col. 2:
(Photo caption.—ed.)
AS A MODEL Anne posed for this statue representing “America,” created by her great uncle, Daniel Chester French. Uncle Daniel once took a ride with Anne in the Locomobile, then politely announced that he still preferred horses.
(...) (Article text.—ed.)
Another uncle was the famous sculptor, Daniel Chester French; Anne often posed for Uncle Daniel—“draped, pf course,” her mother always said—and became, among other things, the model for two figures of a group in front of New York’s old Custom House, an angel in a Boston cemetery and George Washington’s legs.

New York (NY) Times
NEIGHBORHOOD REPORT: NEW YORK UP CLOSE;Rescuing a Heroine From the Clutches of Obscurity
By ANDREW JACOBS
Published: April 14, 1996
(...)
Photo: Barry Popik is championing the model who posed for ‘America’ and other sculptures.

Google Answers
Question
Subject: Art History - Model for Daniel Chester French’s statue of “America”
Category: Arts and Entertainment > Visual Arts
Asked by: beckyjane721-ga
List Price: $5.00
Posted: 10 Oct 2005 18:21 PDT
Expires: 09 Nov 2005 17:21 PST
Question ID: 578703
Who did daniel chester french use as his model for the statue “America” at the Us Customs Building in Manhattan.  I was told her name was Violet Blossom Conrad but I can find no reference to her.  I was also told she was the model used by a famous poster artist of the era and she was called the “angel face” or something like that.  She was born in the Dakota Territory and married someone named Ellicott.
(...)
Subject: Re: Art History - Model for Daniel Chester French’s statue of “America”
From: beckyjane721-ga on 17 Oct 2005 18:27 PDT
Hi all-
I appreciate all of the input and am more than happy to pay tutuzdad the $5.00 if indeed Munson was the model. The reason I rejected this was because while visiting Chesterwood - the home of Daniel Chester French in the Berkshires - I met a woman on our little house tour who said that her grandmother was the model for “America”.  She gave a great deal of detail about this person and the alleged granddaughter did not appear to be in the least bit delusional.  In any case assuming that the model was Audrey Munson, do any of you know anything about someone whose name was Violet Blossom Conrad (?Spelling), who I was told was also a popular poster model of the time and had a moniker that included the word “angel”, who was later married to a man named Ellicott who put a stop to her modeling career.  I find it hard to believe this woman fabricated the entire story out of whole cloth although it may be is family legend that she is the model for “America”.  Any input welcome.

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityPublic Sculpture • Monday, September 14, 2015 • Permalink