The Muse of Manhattan
In 1906, a young girl was spotted walking with her mother by the photographer Ralph Draper. Just as models of today are discovered in mundane situations (Kate Moss was spotted waiting for a flight at JFK), so too were the models of Draper’s era. But this particular discovery gave rise to a legacy that is literally set in stone.
The “Muse of Manhattan”, Audrey Munson
Born in 1891, Audrey Munson grew up in Rochester, New York, and remained there with her father even after her parents’ divorce. However, following a bout of typhoid, she was released into her mother’s custody, and moved to New York City to enroll at a conservatory. There are few details of Munson’s life before her discovery, but it is safe to assume she came from a very modest background. When Draper introduced Munson to the sculptor Isidore Konti, her career took off.
Audrey Munson supposedly called Konti’s sculpture “a souvenir of my mother’s consent.”
Munson posed for all three figures in Konti’s Three Graces when she was 16 years old. The work was then displayed in the lobby of the Hotel Astor. This was not just a promising start for an artistic model, it was the launch of a meteoric career.
Three Graces by Isidore Konti – all three modeled after 16-year-old Audrey Munson
Civic Fame (1913) by Adolph Alexander Weinman at the Manhattan Commerce Building
Adolph Alexander Weinman’s Day and Night sculptures
Munson is immortalized in Adolph Alexander Weinman’s Civic Fame (1913), which remains atop the Manhattan Commerce Building. The sculptural personifications of Day and Night, crafted by Weinman and displayed in the original Penn Station, were both modeled after Munson. She even adorned currency (The US Walking Liberty Half Dollar, and by some accounts, The Mercury Dime). To date, there are upwards of fifteen statues of Munson all across New York City. She was famed for not only her features, but for her ability to work on an almost symbiotic level with the artists for whom she sat: she would study their work religiously, and could hold the poses they chose for hours on end. Her fame grew to such heights that her likeness adorns municipal buildings and memorials stretching from Concord Massachusetts all the way to Cleveland, Ohio. She was even Alexander Stirling Calder’s chosen model for the San Francisco World’s Fair in 1915.
Alexander Stirling Calder’s statue for the 1915 Panama–Pacific International Exposition World’s Fair
Yet, her career was effectively ended by scandal in 1919. She and her mother had been living in rooms rented to them by Dr. Walter Wilkins, a man who, it was later revealed, was madly in love with Munson. He was so obsessed that he murdered his own wife so that he could legally marry Munson. By the time he committed the murder, Munson and her mother had long since left their rooms (sadly at the request of Wilkins’ wife, Julia). Suspecting Munson of being an accessory to the murder, police launched a nationwide manhunt to find her and bring her in for questioning. She was eventually found in Toronto, and though she could prove her innocence, and there was no evidence she was involved, her reputation was ruined.
Munson and her mother could no longer afford to live in New York City, and left for Syracuse in 1920. Her mother supported them both by selling kitchen utensils door-to-door, and Audrey Munson fell into a deep depression. She did not fit in with her small, insular community in Syracuse. She stayed indoors, or, supposedly, tried to rollerskate alone through the uneven country lanes. In 1922, she attempted suicide, and by 1931 she had become so unmanageable that she was committed by a judge to the care of a state psychiatric hospital. Munson lived out the rest of her life at the facility, passing away in 1996 at the age of 104.
The US Walking Liberty Half Dollar and The Mercury Dime designed by Adolph Alexander Weinman
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Monday’s Muse is a weekly feature on the Lofty Blog, exploring some of the more colorful examples of muses and the artists they inspired through the centuries.