The art history department’s year-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of Brodie Hall and the Bertha V.B. Lederer Gallery came to an end on Friday April 21 with professor of art history Lynette Bosch-Burroughs’ lecture, “Emmeline: A World of Bears.”
The lecture, which was sponsored by the Association for the Preservation of Geneseo, addressed how Geneseo’s statue and fountain serve as a “point of intersection between Geneseo and the rest of the world.”
Bosch-Burroughs began with an overview of bear statues present throughout Canada and Europe, which can be found in Berlin, Madrid, London and Berne, Switzerland. She finds many similarities of style and design between these bears and Geneseo’s statue, Emmeline. These historical bears often serve as religious and mythological symbols of intelligence and power.
In Native American cultures, on the other hand, bears often signify wisdom and healing; they are seen in totem poles of the Iroquois and Seneca tribes. Bosh-Burroughs explained that these two symbolic uses for bears merged when Europeans colonized North America. In this way, Emmeline can be seen as a totem for Geneseo, symbolizing both wisdom and power.
Commissioned by Herbert and William Austin Wadsworth and installed in 1888, Emmeline was originally a memorial to Emmeline Wadsworth, the two brothers’ mother. Emmeline Wadsworth is described as an animal lover and a “feisty” woman. Given that she was also the head of the most powerful family in Geneseo, it seems that a bear is a most fitting representation of Emmeline Wadsworth.
Emmeline the Bear is more than just a local point of pride. Believe it or not, she has broader and impressive connections to the nation as a whole. Richard Morris Hunt, the architect of the fountain monument, also designed several high profile projects, such as many Fifth Avenue mansions in New York City, the base of the Statue of Liberty and the façade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This not only suggests that the monument was a desirable commission, but also that Geneseo itself was a desirable area.
To drive this home further, Bosch-Burroughs read a review of the monument written by the New York Times. The columnist’s review of the bear was favorable, only expanding on Bosch-Burroughs’ thesis of Emmeline the Bear’s intersection with the broader American culture.
Our little bear is not without controversy; there are still questions as to who exactly created her. Common opinion is that Antoine Louis Barye created the statue, since the Wadsworths called for “one seated bear by ‘Barye.’”
The issue is, as Bosch-Burroughs note, that Emmeline the Bear does not resemble any of Barye’s other works, one of which is housed at the Wadsworth Library. They do, however, resemble that of Christophe Fratin, a fellow animal sculptor.
The issue with both artists, though, is that neither were alive at the time of the commission. To solve this issue, Bosch-Burroughs explained that casters and manufacturers used molds and casts of both Barye and Fratin’s works to create one composite sculpture.
Of course, Bosch-Burroughs’ presentation would not be complete without mentioning the three accidents that the monument recently suffered within a 10-month time period. After being housed at the Livingston County Historical Society for a brief time, Emmeline the Bear is now in safe hands, awaiting her return to her pedestal atop the fountain, which is currently being reconstructed. The $200,000 project is set to be complete by May or June, according to APOG.
Until then, Geneseo historians and Emmeline fanatics can learn about the fountain’s history through an exhibit up in Milne Library’s lobby. The exhibit, curated by visiting assistant professor of art history Alla Myzelev’s museum studies class, is up until Thursday May 4.