Look at this circa-1975 photo of my mother and me and you’ll see three of my favorite things: a handmade Holly Hobbie doll; a wrap skirt that had seagulls painted on it; and a beautiful fountain that symbolizes Cincinnati.
Around 1868, Henry Probasco, a successful Cincinnati hardware merchant, commissioned the creation of a bronze fountain that would rival those great European fountains. Known as The Genius of Water, the nine-feet-tall fountain features a female figure with outstretched hands, from which streams of water flow. Several adult figures stand below her, representing water’s practical uses, like watering fields, putting out the flames of a burning house, quenching thirst, and bathing. Meanwhile, figures of children represent fishing, ice skating and other pleasures water can bring. Plaques on the fountain’s pedestal suggest water’s important contributions to milling, transportation and iron production. Four figures of boys with a turtle, a dolphin, a snake and a goose stand around the rim; chained to them are cups from which people can drink fresh water.
Probasco dedicated the fountain to Cincinnatians in memory of his business partner and brother-in-law, Tyler Davidson, on October 6, 1871. Ever since, water has continuously flowed from it, from the Saturday before Major League Baseball’s Opening Day until late November or early December.
The 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia inspired Cincinnatians to found a museum in their city that would develop the fine arts, provide good influence to citizens, and enhance the city’s sophisticated reputation. In 1886, “The Art Palace of the West” was dedicated in Eden Park. Donations from many prominent Cincinnatians helped the collection grow. At the same time, Cincinnati was thriving in its important role as a center for the production of furniture, metalwork, ceramics and other decorative items.
The city’s unique artistic history is revealed in the Cincinnati Wing, which opened in 2003 as the first permanent display of a city’s art history in the nation.
Eve Hearing the Voice was modeled by sculptor Moses Ezekiel circa 1876 and was cast in bronze by 1904. Ezekiel and his family moved to Cincinnati from Richmond, Virginia when the city fell to the Union Army in the Civil War. While he was a cadet at the Virginia Military Institute, Ezekiel struck up a friendship with Mary Randolph Custis Lee, the wife of Civil War General Robert E. Lee, who was then president of Washington College, now known as Washington and Lee University. Mrs. Lee encouraged Ezekiel to continue pursuing his art studies in Europe, since his prospects were so bright there. Following her advice, Ezekiel sought training in Berlin and later settled in Rome, where he worked for more than 40 years.
In 1869, Cincinnati’s McMicken School of Design was founded to promote taste and design in the industrial arts. Elizabeth Nourse, a graduate of the school, exhibited her painting, A Mother, in Paris in 1888; later, it was acquired by President Woodrow Wilson and his wife, Ellen.
Twenty-two-year-old Elizabeth also contributed two paintings — representing morning and evening — to a spectacular mahogany bed created to commemorate the wedding of her twin sister, Adelaide, to Benn Pitman, a 60-year-old widower who was Adelaide’s woodcarving instructor. Pitman came up with the design and Adelaide executed the carvings. The nine-feet-high headboard depicts a flock of swallows circling over a hydrangea bush, while the footboard is ornamented with carvings of palms, geraniums and lilies. A matching dresser features Adelaide’s elegant carvings of passionflowers and sunflowers, with depictions of summer and winter that Elizabeth painted.
Pitman taught woodcarving to many young women in Cincinnati, providing them not only with an interesting and useful activity that would occupy them in the time between leaving school and getting married, but also to help them decorate their homes in beautiful, useful ways. Following the examples of Arts and Crafts Movement leaders William Morris and John Ruskin, Pitman encouraged his students to create design motifs based on nature, particularly native plants. Many magnificent examples of Cincinnati art-carved furniture created by Pitman and his students are on display in the Cincinnati Wing.
Henry and William Fry were other talented English woodcarvers who immigrated to Cincinnati in the 1850s. One of their first commissions was to decorate the interior of Joseph Longworth’s home, Rookwood, on Grandin Road in Hyde Park. The Frys carved archways, paneling and cupboard doors in the Gothic revival style, and mantels, including one depicting intertwined grapevines and leaves in honor of Longworth’s father, Nicholas, a vintner whose home eventually became the Taft Museum.
Longworth’s daughter also features prominently in the Cincinnati Wing, but that’s a story for another day.
To discover more, read Fountain Square and the Genius of Water: The Heart of Cincinnati, by Gregory Parker Rogers; The Cincinnati Wing: The Story of Art in the Queen City, edited by Julie Aronson; and Cincinnati Art-Carved Furniture and Interiors, edited by Jennifer L. Howe. For more about the friendship between Moses Ezekiel and Mrs. Lee, read “Dear Young Friend: Letters from the Lees,” an article that I wrote that appears on pages 35 through 37 of the Summer 2009 issue of W&L: The Washington and Lee University Alumni Magazine.