While you likely never read about them in any geography texts, four continents are located on the southern tip of Manhattan island.
A set of four marble statues at the former United States Customs House, the Continents are the work of acclaimed American sculptor Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), who dedicated them to the building in 1907. The sculptures are symbolic representations of Africa, America, Asia and Europe, and are set atop (approximately) nine-foot pedestals at the building's facade. Africa and Asia are situated at the south and north corners of the building; America and Europe are at each side of the main entrance.
In his 1976 book Daniel Chester French: An American Sculptor, Michael Richman writes of the Continents: “These four sumptuously conceived, imposingly grand groups certainly must be considered among the best examples of architectural sculpture executed in America.”
I first learned of French’s Continents on reading Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan by Dianne Durante, an exceptional book that devotes a chapter to these highly detailed works of art. After analyzing each sculpture for their symbolic meanings, Durante’s summarizes: “Consider the Continents not as representative of the people who live on each continent, but as illustrations of states of mind and their results.”
When walking in lower Manhattan earlier this month, I finally took the time to study each sculpture in all their glorious details and snapped the accompanying photographs. For an aesthetic overview of the Continents, I strongly encourage you to read chapter four of Durante’s book. Meanwhile, in my galleries below, I’ve included the summaries of Durante and Richman (including quotes from French’s correspondence with architect Cass Gilbert) of each figure.
Photos by Joseph Kellard
“Asia represents the type of person who focuses on an unseen, supernatural world; with this come misery, bloodshed, and countless human deaths.” - Durante
“Asia, symbol of religions, sits motionless, a tiger at her left and at her right three figures emblematic of ‘the hordes of India, and the hopelessness of the life of so many of the inhabitants.’ Her feet rest on a stool supported by skulls.” - Richman
“Africa is exhausted amid the ruins of long-decaying greatness.” - Durante
“The slumbering seminude figure of Africa is flanked by a lion and a sphinx, beside which is a seated figure that critic Charles de Kay said ‘expresses the mystery of the deserts and the unexplored recesses of Africa’s primeval forests.’” - Richman
“The initial conception and the final marble are remarkably similar for Europe, whose left arm is supported by a globe, while her right hand rests on the side of her throne. To the rear, at the right, a hooded figure represents Ancient History, who, in the finished version, ‘reads a scroll and holds in her hand a laurel-crowned skull. At her feet are crowns,—of her dead kings.” - Richman
“Europe is intelligent and proud, but living in her glorious past.” - Durante
“America is alert, productive, and energetic, able to put natural resources to practical use; the humans and animals around her are peaceful and healthy.” - Durante
“In America, whose composition was reversed from the maquette, the kneeling figure of Labor holds a wheel of progress, and an Indian peers over America’s shoulder. In her lap is a sheaf of corn ‘signifying the American idea of Plenty’; she holds a torch rather than a globe.” - Richman