This essay is adapted from Chapter 28 of Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide. I’ve kept cross-references to other chapters in the book. Outdoor Monuments has been “translated” into a fabulous app that you can enjoy on your phone or tablet for the images and music, even if you’re not in New York. The Guides Who Know Monuments of Manhattan videoguide is available for iPhone users (free Preview; complete app) and Android users (free preview; complete app).
- Sculptor: Paul Manship.
- Dedicated: 1934.
- Medium and size: Gilded bronze (approximately 10 x 18 feet), granite pedestal.
- Location: Rockefeller Center (west of Fifth Avenue, between 49th and 50th Streets), overlooking the ice-skating rink. Subway: B, D, F, V to 47-50th Streets—Rockefeller Center.
About the sculpture
When a sculptor represents a figure as multi-faceted as Prometheus, he has a wide range of possible themes. According to Greek myth, Prometheus formed humans out of clay and water. He gave them sense and understanding, then taught them to work wood and make bricks, to build shelters, to use the stars to tell the seasons for planting, to write, to do math, to harness beasts of burden and to build ships. Prometheus also gave humans the gift of fire, smuggling it from Mount Olympus inside a hollow reed. But Zeus had forbidden anyone to give humans fire, and he ordered Prometheus to be chained to a rock in the distant Caucasus Mountains. Every day, an eagle came to rip out Prometheus’s liver. Every night his liver grew back, so the torture could begin anew.
An artwork with Prometheus as subject could show the importance of thinking, being creative, being independent. It could show the risks of rebellion or the nobility of suffering for the sake of others. It could show sparkling intelligence or intolerable, eternal agony.
Manship chose to show Prometheus bringing fire to mortals. A torch waving in one hand, Prometheus is poised between heaven (symbolized by a cloud and a ring with signs of the zodiac) and earth (the mountains below). He is not looking warily upward for an angry Zeus, but down, at the humans on earth. No hint is given of the horrors to come: Prometheus poses insouciantly, covered with gleaming gilt. The inscription from Aeschylus across the granite behind Prometheus also emphasizes the positive: “Prometheus, teacher in every art, brought the fire that hath proved to mortals a means to mighty ends.” For Manship, what mattered was the life-enhancing gift Prometheus brought, rather than his later suffering.
About the subject
In the 1930s, the Rockefeller family had made more money from business than anyone in the history of the human race. Rockefeller Center was built as a commercial center, in America’s most business-oriented city. Yet the Center boasts not a single statue commemorating business or business executives. Why?
During the nineteenth century, America was regarded as a land of opportunity where any hard-working individual could make a fortune. Entrepreneurs were heroes. By 1900, eleven Manhattan statues honored businessmen, among them Vanderbilt, Dodge, Holley, Sims, Greeley, Ericsson and Cooper (see also Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan Chapters 25, 24, 11, 47, 7, 2, 10).
Around the turn of the century, however, an anti-business trend began, marked by the anti-trust laws, muckraking journalism, and Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party. By the 1930s, when Rockefeller Center was under construction, the country was in the throes of the Great Depression. Many saw Big Government as the only hope of a desperate populace.
Sculptures erected outdoors in Manhattan changed in accordance with prevailing views on business and politics. During the nineteenth century, only five politicians other than Founding Fathers were honored with sculptures (including Conkling, Chapter 18). During the twentieth century, eleven politicians were so honored, including Schurz, Theodore Roosevelt, De Witt Clinton, La Guardia and Eleanor Roosevelt (Chapters 51, 42, 48, 9, 40). In the twentieth century, though, only one statue of a businessman was added to Manhattan’s array of public sculpture. Rea (Chapter 20) was commissioned by the Pennsylvania Railroad for the interior of the original Pennsylvania Station, and moved outside after Penn Station was demolished in the 1960s.
Because of this change in attitude, it was almost inconceivable that the art commissioned for Rockefeller Center would glorify business, even though the Center was built by America’s first billionaire. What, then, would the art focus on?
The Rockefellers consulted a California professor of philosophy, who suggested the theme “New Frontiers.” By that he meant the challenges faced after the conquest of the physical world, including the cultivation of the mind and soul. A committee took his vague idea and mish-mashed it further, into “Intellectual and Spiritual Progress,” “Historical and Mythological Background,” and “The Rise of Nations.” It would have taken a very great artist to concretize any of these vague ideas into a satisfying piece of visual art.
The Center did not get great artists. It got the artists favored by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., wife Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, and son Nelson. Abby was a champion of the avant-garde: she helped establish the Museum of Modern Art (1929) and donated to it her substantial collection of paintings by Gauguin, Picasso and the German Expressionists. The only well-known and popular artist who worked at Rockefeller Center was Paul Manship, who was commissioned to create this fountain sculpture for the central plaza – because he had a reputation for turning out professional work on schedule.
- Prometheus has become an icon of New York, yet when the sculpture was unveiled in 1934 a wit remarked that the figure seemed to have “just sprung from a bowl of hot soup.” To persuasively represent a human figure flying under its own power is no easy task, especially if the figure doesn’t have wings. In esthetic terms (see Chapter 15 in Outdoor Monuments, on the Lincoln at Union Square), the problem with Prometheus is lack of clarity. He could equally well be doing a sidestroke as flying.
- Here’s a test of your habits of observation. You’re standing at Rockefeller Center, looking down at Prometheus, who’s overseeing either ice skaters or diners at an outdoor restaurant, depending on the season. Flanking the steps leading down into the plaza are a pair of large bronze sculptures. Can you remember what they look like? These two figures were originally gilt, and stood on ledges to either side of Prometheus. They represent the human race, to whom Prometheus brought the gift of fire. Within a year after the figures were set in place, Manship decided that they were out of proportion to Prometheus.They were hauled up to the roof of the Palazzo d’Italia at Rockefeller Center (626 Fifth Avenue). Fifty years later, cleaned but not regilded, they were moved to their present locations.
- For two very different interpretations of Prometheus, here are drawings by Salvator Rosa and Francesco Bartolozzi.