May 15, 2016
BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
“An American goddess, she stood forth with golden hair, clothed in shimmering draperies and by night a crown of stars around her head.” -Daniel Chester French
At the Court of Honor at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 – and in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York today – the same woman fascinates in her mystery and beauty. You notice first her swanlike neck, reminiscent of Consuelo Vanderbilt, and the directness of her gaze. No other woman from the Gilded Age remains more center stage so many years later.
Nicknamed “Big Mary” by fairgoers who passed her daily, standing majestically in the central lagoon in the Court of Honor, the Statue of the Republic was one of the largest statues in our country at the time. Only a few fairgoers knew her identity: the daring and beautiful New York debutante, Edith Minturn Phelps Stokes.
Often considered the first modern woman painted by John Singer Sargent, Edith graced an aristocratic family who lived in the fashionable Murray Hill neighborhood of New York. The figure in the background of the Sargent was her architect husband Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes whose adolescent home, part of the Morgan Library complex today, was near to Edith’s family home. The Sargent painting was done on their honeymoon in London as a gift from a member of their wedding party. It hung for many years in their home, a reassembled English castle on Round Hill in Greenwich.
It was thought that Daniel Chester French first observed Edith at a charity ball in the Gramercy Park neighborhood of Manhattan while performing in a tableau vivant. In House of Mirth, Gilded Age-chronicler Edith Wharton delights with the image of beauties – such as her heroine, Lily Bart – posing behind gauzy curtains dressed in costumes to bring alive works of art or history. The women stood frozen, set against simple scenery often within a wooden frame. Edith Minturn was thought to be one of the most skilled and most beautiful in these highly acceptable, but slightly sensuous, scenes. The New York Sun reported at the time:
“Miss Minturn’s beauty has given her more than a local name. Her poses in tableaux vivants have attracted the attention of artists. Most recently she posed for the Statue of the Republic in the court of Honor at the World’s Columbian Exposition. A photograph of the pose won for the photographer first prize in the last exposition of the society of photographers.”
In 1891, she posed for French in his Greenwich Village studio, holding a stuffed bird and a broomstick. These would become an orb decorated with an eagle and wings, and a staff bearing the word ‘liberty,’ when the sculptor finished his creation. At 24, Edith was at the height of her beauty, a radiant choice to embody America, the Republic, and her ability to stand still for long periods of time during tableaux vivants must have helped as she posed for the 13-foot mock up of the statue.
Whether she posed with the approval of her family wasn’t known, but like other celebrated artists, French moved in similar circles in New York society.
Standing 65 feet high, the statue was made entirely of plaster, covered by gold leaf with a crown of electric lights, one of many recent inventions that first appeared at the World’s Fair of 1893. It was assembled in pieces in the lagoon, with an iron framework to hold it in place. With a base of 35 feet, it was not that much shorter than the Statue of Liberty.
The public fell in love with Edith and statue, with trading cards and postcards – another recent creation – among the most popular souvenirs of the Fair. Fairgoers could often be heard uttering the words “Meet me by the Golden Lady” – the statue becoming one of the most popular rendezvous points among guests (in all its grandeur, this is not hard believe).
Not only did the Lady serve as a beacon for the throngs of individuals attending the Fair, but served as an inspiration for other cities and other artists. A French artist did a version of the Republic for the top of the Wisconsin Capitol in Madison that became known as “Miss Forward.”
Two Chicago businessmen, Henry Siegel and Frank Cooper, built a New York branch of their Loop Siegel-Cooper Dry Goods with its design a tribute to the classic architecture of the World’s Fair. The Beaux Arts building of almost 86,0000 square feet cost $4 million to complete. When it opened in 1896 it was the largest emporium in the city. Central to the first floor was a marble basin with a 13-foot replica of the Statue of the Republic and an often-heard phrase in New York at that time was “meet you at the fountain.” The building still stands today on Sixth Avenue between 18th and 19th streets, but no one knows what happened to its Golden Lady.
French himself was so inspired by his creation for Chicago that he created a smaller replica of Edith as the Golden Lady, which stood on the Ladies Mile in New York. This is where the finest shops, including Gorham Silver, Lord & Taylor, and Tiffany & Co., were located between the Civil War and World War I. The first Metropolitan of Art Museum stood close by.
More recently, the Golden Lady’s original city, the Windy City, erected a 24-foot bronze replica in the honor of that first statue. Resplendent in a golden patina, she stands today just off Lake Shore Drive at Hayes, where the Electricity and Manufacturing Buildings of the Fair once stood. The statue was erected on the 25th anniversary of the Fair and continues to be its most remembered symbol.
“Who Was Chicago’s Golden Lady?” is a four- part series
Next Week: Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, Ambassador and Indiana Jones for the World’s Fair of 1893.