Audrey Munson was a model and an actress who rose to fame in the years before World War I. She was so popular as a model with well-known artists of her time that she earned the nickname American Venus.
There are several statues in New York City that are modeled after Munson, probably more than any other woman. Indeed, I became interested in Munson when I made an effort to determine exactly how many statues in New York she posed for. And I am not the only one interested in the subject. Diane Rozas and Anita Bourne Gottehrer, the authors of “American Venus: The Extraordinary Life of Audrey Munson, Model and Muse,” link her to 22 statues. Andrea Geyer, an artist and the author of “Queen of the Artists’ Studios: The Story of Audrey Munson,” says 17. The Wikipedia article on her life? Nineteen. A 2007 New York Times story? Fifteen.
My thinking has evolved on this, but I don’t think it’s possible to iron out a final, accurate number. Researching the Web only goes so far; the answers.com article on Munson, for instance, is a copy of the Wikipedia article. News reports of the day are notoriously inaccurate; and Munson herself gave several interviews in the early 1920s in which she contradicts things she has said, not to mention known details of her life. Never mind that the whereabouts of several of the statues are unknown.
I have included below a complete list, so far as I can tell, of all the statues in New York City linked to Munson. I have noted in shorthand which sources credit Munson as the model, including those cases in which I have an opinion, and added some commentary.
A note about our sources.
- “American Venus,” by Rozas and Gottehrer is a very readable and somewhat meandering recounting of Munson’s life. But the authors make no attempt, that I can discern, to list the statues she modeled for. The book mostly links Munson to monuments in oblique ways, by simply publishing photos of the statues.
- “Queen of the Artists’ Studios” by Geyer is more of an experience than a book about Munson’s life. It is essentially a montage of ink streaks and historical news clippings and photographs, buttressed by four essays. Two are about Munson, or rather writers’ experiences of her. One is about Munson’s role in film. And the fourth is about the hospital where Munson spent most of her life. Geyer, for all her artistic license, has produced what seems to be a well-researched map of Manhattan locating the statues she says Munson posed for.
- Wikipedia is, well, Wikipedia.
(I am eager to hear from anyone who thinks they can add to to this list, either by including a new monument or piece of artwork, or by correcting or clarifying the words below. It’s easy to contact us.)
Three Graces (1907) by Isidor Konti in the lobby of the Hotel Astor, which was demolished in 1967. This is probably the first public monument she modeled for. She would have been 16 at the time and every account of her life says that she was discovered by a photographer on the streets of New York City when she was 16. Geyer does not include this on her map, but that is probably because no one knows where this piece ended up. A New York Public Library researcher told me that a monograph of Konti’s work, published in 1974, lists the sculpture’s whereabouts as unknown. …Konti’s work might be a similar to a statue that resides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a second-century copy of an older Greek work. Venus: Yes; Queen: No; Wikipedia: Yes; Me: Yes.
Duty and Sacrifice, the figures flanking the Firemen’s Memorial (1912) by Atillio Piccirilli at 100th and Riverside Drive in Riverside Park. The parks department credits Munson as the model in its signage and online database. Venus: Yes; Queen: Yes; Wikipedia: Yes; Me: Yes.
Civic Fame (1913) by Adolph Alexander Weinman atop the Municipal Building in Manhattan. The city’s Web site credits Munson as the model for this sculpture. Venus: Yes; Queen: Yes; Wikipedia: Yes; Me: Yes.
The figure of Columbia atop the U.S.S. Maine monument (1913) by Piccirilli at the southwest corner of Central Park, opposite Columbus Circle. Wikipedia says Munson was the model for the figure at the monument’s base, too. Venus: Yes; Queen: Yes; Wikipedia: Yes; Me: Yes.
The figure in the pediment (1914) over the porte-cochère of the Frick Collection by Sherry Edmundson Fry, 70th and Fifth. A Frick reference librarian confirmed this for me in December 2007. Wikipedia, “American Venus,” and “Queen” all say Munson also was the model for a second pediment at the Frick. Venus: Yes; Queen: Yes; Wikipedia: Yes; Me: Yes.
The figure in the Ida and Isidor Straus Memorial (1915) by Augustus Lukeman at 106th and Broadway. (It’s worth noting that Straus is commonly misspelled on the Web.) The likeness of Munson in this statue is particularly striking. The parks department credits Munson as the model in its signage and online database. Venus: Yes; Queen: Yes; Wikipedia: Yes; Me: Yes.
Spirit of Industry (1916) by Carl Augustus Heber at the Manhattan Bridge Plaza in Manhattan. Venus: Yes; Queen: Yes; Wikipedia: Yes; Me: Yes.
Pomona, or Abundance, in the Pulitzer Memorial Fountain (1916) by Karl Bitter and Konti at the southeast corner of Central Park, 59th and Fifth. Bitter was run over by a car and killed while working on the statue; his assistant, Karl Gruppe, and a contemporary, Konti, finished up for him. Barry Popik, a writer and historian, told me in an e-mail message that his research showed that Bitter used the model Doris Doscher and Konti used Munson, so that the statue’s face is Munson’s and the body is Doscher’s. Venus: Yes; Queen: Yes; Wikipedia: Yes; Me: Yes.
Brooklyn and Manhattan (1916) by Daniel Chester French, originally installed on the Brooklyn side of the Manhattan bridge but now flanking the remodeled entrance to the Brooklyn Museum. Venus: Yes; Queen: Yes; Wikipedia: Yes; Me: Yes.
Memory (1919) by French at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 86th and Fifth. Munson apparently was the model for dozens of pieces at the Met, including “Descending Night,” a small figure less than two feet tall not included in this list but included in everyone else’s. Venus: Yes; Queen: Yes; Wikipedia: Yes; Me: Yes.
Mourning Victory (1919) by French inside the Met. This piece is a copy of the Melvin Memorial at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Mass. Venus: Yes; Queen: Yes; Wikipedia: Yes; Me: Yes.
Peace (1900) by Bitter, in the facade of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, near Madison Square. “American Venus” and “Queen” each say Munson was the model for this statue. But she was born in 1891 and, according to New York’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services, all of the courthouse’s sculptures were in place by 1901, when she would have been 10 years old. Venus: Yes; Queen: Yes; Wikipedia: No; Me: No.
Alma Mater (1903) by French on the campus of Columbia University, 118th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam. Geyer put this on her map, but allowed that it might be the actress Mary Lawton. It probably was Lawton. Munson would have been 12 at the time. Venus: No; Queen: Yes; Wikipedia: No; Me: No .
America (1904) in the Four Continents Group by French on the facade of the Customs House in lower Manhattan. “American Venus” says Munson was used for Asia and Europe, too. “Queen of the Artists’ Studios” says Munson was the model for all four continent statues. I have my doubts. Munson was only 8 when French won the commission for this piece in 1899. He began work on the statues in 1903, and they were all in place in 1907, when the building was completed and Munson’s career was just beginning. Popik, the writer and historian, told me in an e-mail message that, in press interviews during the 1920s, Munson claimed to be the model French used. Venus: Yes; Queen: Yes; Wikipedia: No; Me: No.
Beauty (1916, plaster; 1921, marble) by Frederick MacMonnies, a monumental niche in the New York Public Library, 40th and Fifth. A researcher at the library told me that it would be best to remain “agnostic” on the question of whether Munson was the model for this statue. MacMonnies was in France when he worked on the sculpture, 1909-1915, a time when Munson was at her busiest as an actress and model. Munson was in California with her mother in 1916 and 1917. Venus: Yes; Queen: Yes; Wikipedia: Yes; Me: No.
Page 26 of Venus quotes a 1913 article from The New York Sun, which mentions another monument: “Up on Riverside Drive, Allen George Newman’s fountain ‘Music of the Water’ shows another pose of this young woman.” The facing page in Venus has a photocopy of the article, which includes a picture of the fountain. But exactly where this is (or was) is a mystery to me. Venus: Yes; Queen: No; Wikipedia: Yes; Me: Yes.
There are other works of art in New York widely credited to Munson, but because my Web site is focused on statues, I am setting these aside. They include:
The figure over the proscenium (1913) at the New Amsterdam Theater. This is definitely Munson, but it’s a painting, not a statue. Venus: No; Queen: No; Wikipedia: Yes.
Figure on doors of the Greenhut and John W. Gates mausoleums, possibly at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. In April 2008, I was contacted by a woman who said a member of her family, a model who was known as Alberta Ludbrook, was used as the model for the figure on the Gates tomb. Venus: Yes; Queen: No; Wikipedia: Yes.
Figure in the Women’s Health Protective Association fountain, Riverside Drive and 116th, by Bruno Lewis Zimm. This also is a bas relief. Venus: No; Queen: Yes; Wikipedia: No.
Audrey Munson was born June 8, 1891, in Mexico, N.Y. She was apparently discovered by a photographer walking on a New York street. She soon became a sought-after model, was a widely published writer of columns and essays and eventually starred in four silent motion pictures. Her film career waned, and her modeling career was reportedly torpedoed by a spurned lover. Munson eventually tried to commit suicide. She spent the final 65 years of her life in a mental institution, and died Feb. 20, 1996.