By Levi Clancy for לוי on
New York City Central Park
Central Park is an example of the Picturesque tradition in landscape design and an outgrowth of American nineteenth-century Romanticism, which put special value on nature.
Following the Picturesque aesthetic of that era, the park’s landscape architects, Frederick law Olmsted (1822 – 1903) and Calvert Vaux (1824 – 1895), designed the park to resemble a series of landscape paintings depicting pastoral meadows and rustic woodlands.
The guidelines for the 1857 design competition for Central Park called for a glass house for the exhibition of tropical plants, and the Greensward Plan, the winning entry prepared by Frederick Law Olmsted (1822 – 1903) and Calvert Vaux (1824 – 1895), proposed a conservatory and ornamental flower beds at this location. The conservatory was never built, and the area configured as a floral parterre was turned into an ornamental pond instead. Model boat racing soon became a popular activity on the Conservatory Water, so much so that the pond is more familiarly known as the Model Boat Pond. Author E B White (1899 – 1985) made it the setting for the memorable boat race in Stuart little (1945). George Lober’s (1892 – 1961) statue of Hans Christian Anderson, which was installed on the west side of the Conservatory Water in 1956, and Jose de Creeft’s (1900 – 1982) statue of Alice in Wonderland, which was placed near its northern edge in 1959, reinforce the association of this part of the par with children’s literature. In 2000, the model boat pond’s concrete coping was replaced with granite and the surrounding pathways were restored.
Central Park’s landscapers modeled it after romantic images of nature, but they also wanted it to have a primary social space where people could congregate: a broad promenade for strolling, enjoying musical concerts, and greeting friends.
The Mall leading to the Bethesda Terrace is the single straight axis within Central Park’s Picturesque plan of gently winding paths. It is lined by double rows of American elms on either side. The Central Park Conservancy’s horticultural program to combat elm disease in the park has resulted in this being one of the finest remaining stands of elm trees in the United States.
Although it was Olmsted’s firm opinion that the Park should be kept “as free as possible from … the incessant emphasis of artificial objects,” there was pressure to place statues of military and political heroes as well as important figures in literature and science within its green landscape. William Shakespeare, a standing bronze by John Quincy Adams Ward (1830 – 1910) was erected at the southern end of the Mall in 1870. Other writers soon joined Shakespeare, and the southern end of the mall became known as Literary Walk. Here in 1872, an organization of Scottish American installed a larger-than-life seated bronze figure of Walter Scott, the much-loved 19th century novelist, sculpted by John Steell (1804 – 1891). In 1880, opposite the sculpture of Scott, the Scottish Americans placed another large-scale bronze by Steell, this one of Robert Burns. Burns wrote poems in the Scottish dialect, revived the tradition of Scottish folk songs, and is the author of Auld Lang Syne, the sentimental song of friendship, now sung to a different tune as a traditional way of ringing in the New Year. Literary Walk also contains a bronze sculpture of New York poet Fitz-Greene Halleck (1780 – 1872), modeled by James Alexander MacDonald (1824 – 1908) in the same seated posture as Steell’s images of Scott and Burns: the position of a writer caught at the moment of inspiration. The statue of Halleck was unveiled by President Rutherford B Hayes on 1877 May 15 before a crowd of 10,000 people. He is completely unknown today, remembered only by this statue.
On the west side of the Mall near its terminus at the 72nd Street Cross Drive, the park’s designers placed a cast-iron bandstand. Wednesday and Saturday band concerts soon became a popular feature of park life, and people sat on benches in the shade of the elm trees or beneath the wisteria pergola on the eastern slope overlooking the Mall. In 1923, this relationship between the pergola and the Mall was compromised by the addition of the Neoclassical Naumburg Bandshell in cast-concrete and Indiana limestone, but the Goldman Band concerts that occurred until the 1960s in that structure drew large crowds and the Concert Ground remained a popular venue for musical entertainment. The Concert Ground was restored in 1991.
The Bethesda Terrace, as envisioned by architects Calvert Vaux (1824 – 1895) and Jacob Wrey Moul (1825 – 1886), was intended as a magnificent marriage between art and nature.
Throughout his career, the New York Realist Reginald Marsh was drawn to the seedier sides of urban life, including slum districts, strip clubs, and popular beaches. Likely set at Coney Island, this sketchily painted work captures the rowdy, sexually charged atmosphere fostered by the looser social mores and more revealing bathing-suit styles that developed over the course of the 20th century. Marsh also added art historical references to his scene of modern leisure. The woman with arms raised alludes to a Baroque statue depicting the mythological story of Daphne fleeing the sexual advances of Apollo, and the reclining figure at right resembles classical and Renaissance images of river goddesses. Portland Museum of Art