East Side of Bryant Park, Manhattan
This statue of Gertrude Stein, the writer and famous American friend-haver, sits in the paved seating area on the eastern edge of Bryant Park, next to the landmark library and positively dwarfed (the statue, including the stone base, is not quite 7 feet tall) by the monument to the American poet (and namesake of the park) William Cullen Bryant, a couple of steps to the east.
The significance of Stein’s statue overshadows its stature: this is the first public statue of an American woman to be installed in New York City. Hard to believe (or maybe it isn’t), but out of dozens and dozens of historical statues and more than 400 years of civic history, Gertrude is the first female American to be thus immortalized.
The statue was the gift of Dr. Maury Leibovitz, who died in 1992, in a contrived effort to fill out the fairer side of the city’s statuary. Leibovitz was a New York psychologist and art dealer who owned the estate the sculptor who made the statue (Jo Davidson).
The story goes that Leibovitz made the gift after hearing Betsy Gotbaum, the parks commissioner at the time, complain about the lack of women in the city’s statuary. “I was a little insulted,” Gotbaum is quoted as saying in a July 16, 1992, New York Times story, “that Mother Goose was the only representative of my sex in probably the most important park,” referring to the statue in Central Park (see photo at left).
Of course, with all due respect to Leibovitz, Gotbaum, Davidson, the Bryant Park Corporation and Gertrude herself, this statue has to be regarded as one of the most unflattering in the city, never mind that it has a formidable rival for the prize just around the walking path to the west in the Pez- dispenser-esque bust of the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that stares forlornly at the carousel. Not that Stein (or her fans) would care, probably.
Stein’s body is essentially an inelegant lump of bronze, poured onto an inscribed polished granite base. Her seated figure gazes glumly (or thoughtfully) to the north, across the metal chairs and tables usually buzzing with New Yorkers, with her hands in her lap. It’s similar to the famous portrait of her made by Picasso in 1906.
The base is inscribed matter of factly with her name, year of her birth and death and when the sculpture was made and cast.
Stein actually posed for the statue in 1920, in Davidson’s Paris workshop. Well, Davidson was famous, and he didn’t do formal poses. Instead, he would sit and talk to his subjects, and do his sculpting later.
Critics of art make note of the Buddha -like qualities of the sculpture; indeed, almost every description mentions that Stein was heavy-set in real life. Dianne Durante, author of “Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan,” reports that Davidson himself said he posed Stein like “a sort of modern Buddha.” …Mission accomplished.
The statue in Bryant Park is one of 10 copies. The Met apparently has one, and so does the Whitney. It was dedicated Nov. 5, 1992, just after the park reopened after its famous renovation.
Stein was born Feb. 3, 1874, in Allegheny, Pa. Her literary career and its significance are probably beyond my ken to elaborate, though she was probably more significant for whom she knew than for what she wrote. There are no shortage of Web sites dedicated to her life and writings. In short, her writings are famously obscure, her Paris home became a cultural center during the 1920s, and she is said to have influenced writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald. She died July 27, 1946.
Of Stein and her writing, Durante reports a story told by Davidson, the sculptor. “Gertrude did a portrait of me in prose,” Davidson said. “When she read it aloud, I thought it was wonderful. It was published in ‘Vanity Fair’ with my portrait of her. But when I tried to read it aloud to some friends, or for that matter to myself, it didn’t make very much sense.”
Updated August, 2007, SIRIS (NA)