The Fountain of the Great Lakes
I'm still astonished at the things you can find online sometimes. Such as the words of Lorado Taft on September 9, 1913, on the occasion of the dedication of "The Fountain of the Great Lakes," now found at the back of the pleasant South Garden of the Art Institute of Chicago, but which seemed last week to have few visitors among the waves of people entering the museum through the front door only a few feet away.
"The motif of the group is not profound," the Chicago sculptor said nearly 100 years ago. "I have sometimes wondered if it were not too obvious. 'Lake Superior' on high and 'Lake Michigan' at the side both empty into the basin of 'Lake Huron, who sends the waters on to 'Lake Erie' whence 'Lake Ontario' receives them. As they escape from her basin and hasten into the unknown, she reaches wistfully after them as though questioning whether she has been neglectful of her charge."
I stood there looking at the water flow down the course of the five figures, and then read the name plaque that gave the title, and then I understood it was an allegorical sculpture. Such sculptures are many but they tend to be of abstractions -- justice, liberty, various virtues. Geographical allegories in any kind of medium seem rare enough, though I could be wrong. I'm certain I've seen continents depicted as maidens on tapestries, but I forget where.
Back to Taft (1860-1936), whose work also includes the "Fountain of Time" in Chicago and the "Eternal Indian" in Oregon, Ill.: "Such is the value of monuments; such is the potency of this ancient, awfully permanent art of sculpture. It bears its message through the ages, reaching a hand in either direction, binding together as it were the generations of men. On mouldering stone and corroded bronze we read the aspirations of a vanished race. In the same materials we send our greetings to myriads of souls unborn."
I can't end without a note on Benjamin Franklin Ferguson (1839-1905), the Chicago lumber baron whose estate paid for the fountain. In fact, he left $1 million in plump early 1900s dollars to commission statues after his death. "The Fountain of the Great Lakes" was the first, but hardly the last. Others include "Nuclear Energy" and "The Bowman" and "The Spearman," though the Art Institute used a creative interpretation of the fund's stipulations to build an addition to the museum the 1950s, the B.F. Ferguson Memorial Building.