Emma Stebbins (1815-1882) was born in New York City on September 1, 1815, where her father John Stebbins was a prominent Wall Street broker and president of the North River Bank. Raised in a cultured home, as a child she wrote verse and songs and painted. She studied with Henry Inman (1801-1846), New York’s leading portrait painter, and by 1843, she was so accomplished in her paintings that she was elected an associate of the National Academy of Design.
In 1857, Emma Stebbins went to Rome to study painting, but soon turned to sculpture, and studied under Maine-born Benjamin Akers and an Italian master. It was here that she met American actress Charlotte Cushman, who would become her partner and greatest advocate for the duration of their lives.
Stebbins’ best-known work, The Angel of the Waters, today cherished as Bethesda Fountain, was unveiled in Central Park in 1873. It depicts the Biblical story of the angel who descended the pool at Bethesda to stir the waters, giving them healing powers. Four cherubs, Temperance, Purity, Health, and Peace, support the angel. For this work, the first commission given to a woman for a major work in New York City, Emma Stebbins received the unprecedented sum of $60,000 (just over $1 million today).
Critics of the time were not impressed with The Angel of the Waters, suspecting that her commission was the result of the influence of her brother Henry Stebbins (1811-1881), who was president of Central Park’s Board of Commissioners. However, over the years it has become a beloved New York landmark.