Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Nymph Fountain in Chicago, Illinois. (1899)

The Nymph Fountain was installed in June of 1899, under the darkness of night, on the south lawn of the Art Institute by students of Lorado Taft, Chicago’s foremost sculptor in that time period.
Lorado Taft never built a permanent version of the Nymph Fountain because Chicagoans were "shocked" and vandalized the fountain.
The forty-foot-diameter fountain featured eight larger-than-life nude female figures in sensuous poses. The work was a class project, made of temporary materials, but Taft hoped to build it in “imperishable bronze.” Given the reception the work of art received, that would never happen.

The Nymph Fountain created a stir and attracted crowds that at times required police to manage. It became the “talk of the town,” with politicians, editorialists, and religious figures weighing in. “The nymph is not an intellectual goddess... [and] stands for nothing related to high or noble intellectual accomplishments,” said the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

Such negative reactions left Chicagoans open to ridicule. The New York Times opined, “Preachers, or some of them, think the nymphs should have been provided with mackintoshes [raincoats], while even the most ultra of Chicago’s art cliques would not resent a shirtwaist as a sop to the prudish majority of the city’s population.”

Not everyone in Chicago objected. Mayor Carter Harrison Jr. “trundled down to the lakefront on his bicycle... to take a look at the fountain” for himself and proclaimed it “not in any sense objectionable,” according to the Chicago Tribune. Nevertheless, the prevailing sentiment was shock. Within a few weeks, vandals had “practically ruined” the Nymph Fountain, the Boston Evening Transcript reported. “Nearly every figure in the fountain had been mutilated, and many nymphs had their hands and arms broken off.” The article did not specify whether upright or uptight citizens did the damage.

No, nineteenth and twentieth century Chicago was not like Paris, despite Chicago's efforts to elevate itself out of the mud and burnish its reputation built on butchering hogs. In another instance, a fountain created in 1908 by Leonard Crunelle that featured a nude boy was initially welcomed as part of an art show in Humboldt Park organized by the Municipal Art League “to forward the beautification of the city.” The handsome sculpture was “set like a jewel” in Humboldt Park, said the Tribune. “It’s evident at a glance that the scene is improved by the statue, and that the statue is set off by the scenery without the slightest incongruity.”

But after the exhibit, Crunelle’s piece was installed in an alcove on the north wall of the Sherman Park field house near 52nd and Throop streets, where it troubled the Felician Sisters who worked across the street at Saint John of God Church. They objected to the subject’s frontal nudity. The park district removed the sculpture, which has since disappeared. The alcove and basin are still there, the latter used as a planter.

Similarly, in 1887 the commissioners of Lincoln Park ordered that the private parts of Storks at Play’s Merboys (Mermen are mythical male equivalents and counterparts of mermaids) be covered with fig leaves. The coverings were later removed.

The original design of the 1893 Rosenberg Fountain in Grant Park portrayed the Greek goddess Hebe, topless. Hebe is a cupbearer to the gods, and myth holds that Apollo dismissed her after she indecently exposed her breasts while serving drinks. The fountain’s sculptor originally portrayed Hebe topless, but the executors of benefactor Rosenberg’s will selected a safer design out of deference to public taste. The fountain, which still stands at Michigan Avenue and 11th Street, depicts Hebe wearing a clinging diaphanous gown and exposing only one breast - a design the Tribune dubbed “Hebe the Second.”

By Greg Borzo
Edited by Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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