This wooden head is all that remains of William Rush’s carved sculpture from 1809. That standing, life-sized “Nymph,” Philadelphia’s first free-standing piece of public art, held aloft a marsh bird, a bittern, which spouted a column of Schuylkill water. Originally, the sculpture and its fountain stood in front of architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s pump house at Center Square. For some time now, that’s been the site of the courtyard at Philadelphia City Hall.
Rush started carving figureheads for ships in the 1780s and soon his repertoire included luminaries and legends: Franklin, Washington, Adams, Voltaire, Hercules, allegories of Peace, Liberty, and the “Genius of the United States.” And, of course, monumental eagles.
His earliest public sculptures, Comedy and Tragedy, adorned niches on the façade of Chestnut Street Theatre. “In the execution of this work, read a notice in the American Daily Advertiser on April 2, 1808, “the genius of the artist is truly pourtrayed. He has done himself honor, and added to that of his country.”
In 1812, Rush carved a seven-foot-tall allegory of Wisdom. He added Justice twelve years later, and the pair topped off the arch spanning Chestnut at Independence Hall for the triumphal return visit of the Marquis de Lafayette, the French General essential for Washington’s win in the Revolution. Rush also carved a full-length figure of The Father of his Country.
The sculptor’s self-portrait in 1822 has him draped with boughs of pine. Except they are made of terra cotta. It’s on exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
In 1825, Rush again allegorized river water with the Schuylkill Chained and Schuylkill Freed for the waterworks at Fairmount.
The Nymph and Bittern statue is often misidentified as the classical figure of Leda and the Swan. (A little background on that: Zeus admired Leda and transformed himself into a swan and seduced her. That union produced Helen of Troy, Clytaemnestra and the twins Castor and Pollux.) A good story, but that bittern is no Zeus.
Back on earth in Philadelphia, according to Vanuxem family tradition, “the lovely and socially prominent Louisa Vanuxem (1782-1874),” modeled for Rush. Her father, the influential merchant James Vanuxem, served as chairman of the Watering Committee when Rush received the commission.
Thomas Eakins dearly wanted to believe that Louisa Vanuxem posed for Rush in the nude. Repeatedly, he depicted the scene he imagined. Those paintings now hang in museums far and wide. Eakins also produced his own sculptural studies of Miss Vanuxem.
The popularity of the young, lithe, barely-clad female figure was undisputed, and became legendary. In addition to depictions in prints and paintings, the rowdy members of the Fairmount Fire Company adopted her image as a logo. They wore it proudly on their ceremonial hats.
In 1872, the City of Philadelphia paid Robert Wood & Co. $1,200 to cast in bronze Rush’s wood original. That figure was then reinstalled in the center of a fountain basin at the Fairmount Water Works. Today it is safely inside at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
By the early 20th century, having almost totally disintegrated, the wooden nymph was moved inside at the Water Works. According to Linda Bantel, “shortly thereafter, John S. Wurts…a great-great nephew of Louisa Vanuxem, salvaged from the fragmentary remains the head and part of the bittern.” That head, illustrated above in a photograph of 1918, was subsequently repainted. Today it is on exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.