Three Views of the Four Continents

Sculptures at the Old Customs House in New York by Daniel Chester French
Sculptures at the Old Customs House in New York by Daniel Chester French

My first encounter with sculptures representing four continents, Africa, Asia, America and Europa, was in a San Francisco antique store. There were two large photos of sculpture that had been at the 1876 Philadelphia Exhibition. The photographs turned out to of sculptures made by Royal Doulton and displayed at the Exhibition. They are replicas of sculptures incorporated into the Royal Albert Monument in London.

Today I learned there were four sculptures of the same topic outside the Old U.S. Customs House at Bowling Greene. It seemed like a good reason to switch trains in a different station.

Stereoview card Showing America by Royal Doulton
Stereoview card Showing America by Royal Doulton

Daniel Chester French is best known for the statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial, but he was also the sculptor of the “Columbia” monument that overlooks the lagoon in so many photographs of the 1893 World’s Columbia Exhibition, the Concord Minuteman in Massachusetts and the Alma Mater on the Morningside Campus of Columbia University.

The four sculptures on the Old Customs House are classic in their Victorian depictions of the four continents. Asia stands on Bones, Europa leans on books, Africa incorporates a sphinx and America stands out as perky and youthful. French’s skill as a sculptor notwithstanding, I prefer the more equally-weighted depictions of the continents by Royal Doulton. I also like the use of the Buffalo to depict America in the Royal Doulton examples, with Asia being represented by an elephant, Africa a camel and Europe a cow. I should note the Africa by Royal Doulton also has a sphinx set below the camel.

The Eternal Flame by Marshall Fredericks
The Eternal Flame by Marshall Fredericks

Should you want to get hung up on whether a camel adequately represents Africa, or some similar notion, or the unequal way the continents and civilizations are portrayed in French’s sculptures, I’d like to refer you to another place where the four continents are represented.

Peace Arising from the Flames of War by Marshall Fredericks is a more contemporary sculpture in Cleveland, Ohio. Fredericks speaks to the cultural and religious notions that divide us. Four groups at the base of the figure represent the four “corners” of the earth from which come the major religions. I’m not quite as sure as the author of a Wikipedia entry that the sculpture intends to bring together the religions to result in eternal life. Rather, it might refer to leaving them behind so we can find peace. A plaque on the base of the monument reads: The four granite carvings represent the geographic civilizations of the earth. The bronze sphere represents the supertitions and legends of mankind. The bronze figure is man rising from the flames and reaching for eternal peace.

About Art After X

With the death of President Kennedy in 1963, America changed. As hard as it is to minimize that sentiment, the effect of Dallas was even greater. The same year saw the merging of the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts, which had been central to the art scene, and the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. Douglas MacAgy, then the director of DMCA, not only opposed the merger, but also declined to directorship of the combined museum. The regionalist movement which had been strong for decades, was giving way to more of an interest in what was going on nationally, and internationally. Like it or not, Dallas was on the national stage. When the Kennedy’s arrived in Fort Worth, local collectors had decorated a hotel room with internationally-renowned works. While the president and his wife learned a great deal about the ability of Texans to collect major art, there was little they could glean about the local scene in this era-defining city. With this in mind, we have begun a project to look not back at the art scene in Dallas, but foreword from 1963. We are interviewing gallery owners, curators and others involved in the art scene then, but this will be a story told mostly through interviews with artists active in the city from that point into the 1980s. The result will be a book with a video component. We hope you will join us in our journey. The hashtag for the project is #artafterx and the url artafterx.com will point to the latest updates on this weblog.

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