The Four Continents, 1903-1907
The theme of the work was chosen by Custom-House-architect Gilbert Cass, who not only designed the building, but collaborated with numerous sculptors on the statuary that adorns it. As the building was designed to house an organization dealing with international commerce, Cass commissioned sculptures that dealt with related themes. At the top of the building are twelve figures representing countries that Cass saw as past or present naval or commercial powers . There are sculpted heads representing the races of the world, and images of Mercury, the Roman god of commerce . The most prominent works are those of the Four Continents by Daniel Chester French. The theme "the four continents" was one that had often been seen in Western drawings, prints, and decorative arts since the "discovery" of America as a fourth continent at the end of the 15th Century. It was a relatively uncommon theme in sculpture, however .
When viewed from left to right, the first sculpture of the set is Asia. The central figure of this group is a calm woman, seated with eyes closed, her hands resting on her knees. On her lap there sits a small Buddha, and in one hand she holds a lotus flower, with a serpent wrapped around the stem. The bare feet of the central figure rest on a platform held up by a series of skulls. She is dressed in draping robes, and wears numerous necklaces. To her right is a tiger, sitting with its back to the viewer and its head turned, gazing up at the central figure. To her left are three additional figures: a boy kneeling, with his head down in prayer; an emaciated old man with his hands tied behind his back in slavery; a woman with a baby strapped to her back . The man and the woman stand bent over, leaning against the central figure for support.
The sculpture of America is to the right of Asia. It is the only one of the four in which there is action in the position of the central figure. America is represented as a young, alert woman, sitting at the edge of her chair as if ready to spring forward if need be. She holds a torch in one hand, and a bushel of corn is on her lap. Her right foot, extended forward, leans on the head of an image of the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl . Visible in the background over her right shoulder is a Native American man wearing a warrior's headdress . Another man, mostly nude, kneels at her side, in the protection of her arm and flowing cape. He holds tools in one hand, and with the other tends a small, winged wheel.
The next sculpture to the right is Europe. The central figure in this sculpture sits majestically on a throne with a relief on the side referencing an ancient frieze from the Parthenon . She sits up straight, her crowned head held high as she looks somberly ahead. She wears a voluminous, draping cloak, in the style of the ancient Greeks , with a hem decorated with coats of arms. Her left arm rests on a large book, which is itself on top of a globe of the earth. Behind her, the throne turns into the front of a ship, and there is a Roman Imperial Eagle perched above it . Behind the central figure there sits an old woman, shrouded in a long cape, and reading from a book.
Africa is the fourth sculpture of the group, located to the far right of the main entrance of the building. The central figure is shown sleeping on a chair of rocks. She is half nude, with fabric draped across her lower body. One elbow rests on the head of a lion, while the other rests on a crumbling sphinx. Her hair is in a long braid, falling over her shoulder. Behind her is another figure, almost completely covered in a long, flowing cloak. Only the figure's eyes are visible, and it is not possible to tell whether it is a man or a woman. The hand of this figure rests on a large jar.
French has been quoted as warning, "sculpture is the language that the sculptor speaks in and often the introduction of a motif is one of feeling rather than of any literary expression" . It is difficult, however, to look at these groupings and not consider the meanings of the many objects and images embedded within them. Even Cass was willing to describe the works on a symbolic level .
The sculpture of Asia has been seen to represent the place where the world's major religions began, with the serene tiger as a depiction of the dominating power of religion on even the most wild creatures . Giving his perspective, Cass wrote, "In the lap of the central figure is the idol, symbol of false worship, while above the right shoulder of the figure is seen the rising luminous cross of Christianity, symbol of hope, which found its birth place on the continent of Asia" .
In the sculpture of America, the torch is seen as a symbol of "liberty and enlightenment," and the corn represents prosperity . The kneeling man has been named Labor, and the wheel next to him is the "Winged Wheel of Progress" .
Cass called Europe "an Imperial figure of the highest intelligence..." . The imagery of the book and the globe has been described as representing Europe as the disseminator of knowledge . The ship shows Europe's power on the sea, and the old woman behind the throne represents history .
At the time that the Four Continents was sculpted, Americans often referred to Africa as the "Dark Continent," and perceived it as a land of untapped resources . This is represented in the portrayal of Africa as a sleeping, partially nude figure, and in the mystery of the figure behind her.
The building in front of which the Four Continents stands now houses a branch of the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of the American Indian—an organization that sees the diversity of the world's cultures in a light quite different from Daniel Chester French and Gilbert Cass in 1903. In a pamphlet about the building and its history, the museum's director, W. Richard West, Jr., addresses the contradictions between the goals of the museum and the images displayed at the front entrance. West writes, "when [this building] was built, in the early 20th century, most people believed that Indians would disappear in the wake of Western civilization" . The sculpture of America, he points out, has many elements that express this way of thinking: the Native American in the background with broken pottery by his side, the image of an Aztec deity under the foot of the central figure, and Mayan writing on the side of the central figure's seat. In recognizing and writing about the biases represented in the sculpture, however, West also expresses hope for the future. "...Perhaps this building," he writes, "whose architecture reflects European traditions and whose decoration portrays Native Americans as relics of the past will one day be seen in a new light—as a symbol of the diversity that has always enriched American society and of the resilience Native peoples have shown in the face of great cultural challenges" .
Possible discussion themes
Compare the works of Emma Lazarus
(the poem "The New Colossus")
and Daniel Chester French.
How can we deal with artworks whose content is potentially offensive?
Related art works
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