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 that 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 superstitions and legends of mankind. The bronze figure is man rising from the flames and reaching for eternal peace.

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