Fine Figures

The story behind the Providence statues you pass by every day

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“Wow,” you think, “that’s a cool statue. I wonder what it is.”
We have all thought this to ourselves, walking the streets of Providence. Our city is full of cast bronze and carven stone, depicting every kind of figure. Musicians and war heroes populate Roger Williams Park. Starving Irishmen and a Turkish corsair appear in Downcity. Our capital is topped with that inimitable personage, the Independent Man. Every few blocks, there’s a president or pioneer gazing back at you.

The East Side has its share of monuments, too, but you might not identify them at first glance. Summer days are the perfect time to spot these public decorations, tucked into lawns and terraces, shaded by trees or stored inside buildings. Here are some of our favorites – and the diverse characters they portray.

 

Anthenaeum Sculptures

Among its many quirks, the Athenaeum has a remarkable collection of statues and busts, which casually decorate the 188-year-old library. There’s a bronze likeness of H.P. Lovecraft, a statue of Benjamin Franklin and Louis XVI signing the Treaty of Alliance, and the face of Albert J. Jones, the Athenaeum’s secretary in the 1840s, among others. (Fun fact: The librarians have decorated these sculptures with costumes to celebrate certain readings and events).

 

Orpheus Ascending

The tragic story of Orpheus, the Greek musician who watched his wife die twice, is only part of why this sculpture is so compelling: Its creator was Gilbert Franklin, who grew up in Attleboro, Massachusetts, and became one of the foremost modernist sculptors in the US. The three abstract characters of Orpheus Ascending stand in the middle of Frazier Terrace on RISD campus.

 

Indomitable

The Brown University mascot, sculpted by British artist Nick Bibby, may seem gigantic, but at ten feet, this male Kodiak bear is roughly to scale. Indomitable is both fearsome and photo-realistic, rearing before the Nelson Fitness Center like an ursine sentinel. A previous statue of “Bruno” was moved from about the same prominent location, so Brown hired Nick to create a replacement in 2013.

 

A Memorial to Young Womanhood

The story sounds like a gothic novel: Constance Witherby, a 15-year-old from Providence, was climbing in the Swiss Alps when she suffered heart failure and died. Constance left behind a treasure trove of poems, which were eventually published as a collection, and her parents commissioned the statue and gave it to the city. Depicting a serious-looking young woman with flowing hair and dress, the statue originally stood in Witherby Park, a stone’s throw from the Seekonk River, but was moved to its current home on Blackstone Boulevard near the intersection with Clarendon Street.

 

Roger Williams Statue

It was Roger Williams who named Providence, and his statue looks over the city like a proud father. When Ralph Thomas Walker carved it in the 1930s, he created a tall and triumphant theologian who watches every sunset from his marble mount in Prospect Park. The monument was a gift from Stephen Randall, a scion of Roger, and it has become one of the most famous markers in Rhode Island. With his right hand extended, Roger appears to be blessing the city below. Most visitors are unaware that Roger’s remains are actually stored inside the structure.

 

Korean War Memorial

Hunched over his rifle and draped in rain gear, this GI looks pensive and pained – a vivid portrayal of modern war. The Korean War Memorial was dedicated in 1998, and it’s as haunting and real-looking as the more famous memorial in Washington, DC. Many critics have noted its stark contrast to the mythic appearance of the nearby World War I Memorial.

 

Marcus Aurelius and Caesar Augustus

No, these second century Roman emperors did not graduate from Brown. The two monuments may look familiar, though: Marcus Aurelius perches atop his horse, and Caesar Augustus stands boldly in his armor, seeming to address a crowd. Both are replicas of famous statues in Rome – except that Augustus’ arm broke off during a hurricane in the 1930s. Why these Classical figures? Hard to say. But whatever his precise motivation, Robert Hale Ives Goddard gifted the Augustus to Brown in 1906 and the Aurelius in 1908.

 

The Boy and Girl Fountain

Swan Point Cemetery is as much an art museum it is cemetery. The grounds are covered in artful crypts and statuary. The Boy and Girl Fountain shows two Victorian children in rain gear, sheltered under the same umbrella. Someone stole the original statue in the 1960s, but this replacement dates to 1974.

 

World War I Memorial

Rising from the very center of Providence, the World War I Memorial is a magisterial granite column that photobombs the city from almost every conceivable angle. Even if you have no idea what this sculpture is, you have certainly gazed upon the female figure on top, an art deco homage to peace. Architect Paul Cret finished the 150-foot sculpture in 1929 to honor the soldiers from Providence who served in the war; the design includes patriotic stars at the summit and a chest-thumping
Emerson quote at the base.

 

George M. Cohan Statue

No sculpture has better portrayed the razzle-dazzle of vaudeville than the George M. Cohan statue in Fox Point. This song-and-dance man entertained thousands of audiences in the early 20th century, and Robert Shure’s bust shows George on a “ta-da!” position. Erecting a statue was the idea of one Sy Dill, a native New Yorker who felt George should be honored in his hometown; the bust was unveiled in 2009. In our opinion, it’s much more fun than the one in Times Square, where he’s just standing around with a walking stick.