Bartholdi Park Art & Architecture

The Bartholdi Fountain was designed symmetrically in three identical sections. The triangular base with turtles and large shells rises to the pedestal, from which three identical nereids (sea nymphs) rise on thirds. Between their feet are fish and scattered sea shells and coral. The nymphs, with arched backs, are caryatids, following a tradition of sculpture founded in classical Greece. They seem to hold up the large basin, which is actually supported by the central column. The nymphs wear headdresses of leaves. Their clinging drapery, clasped by shells at the waist, reveals their supple figures. Despite its monumental size (it weighs approximately 40 tons and is 30 feet high, and the sculptured female figures are 11 feet tall), each element of the fountain is beautifully detailed. The curved arms of the nereids lead the viewer's eye to the large basin above, which supports 12 lights. The fountain continues with three youthful tritons playfully holding out seaweed and is topped by a mural crown resembling a crenellated city wall. Water spills from the crown over the tritons and splashes into the upper basin, while jets shoot from the mouths of the fish and the turtles. When it was created, the fountain fused modern gas-lighting and cast-iron technologies with water and was intended to allegorically represent Light and Water. Bartholdi saw this work as symbolically appropriate for the modern city, and he hoped that many cities throughout the country would purchase castings. Actually only Reims, France, acquired one in 1885, and it is no longer extant. The gas lamps made the fountain a popular attraction since it was one of the first monuments in the city of Washington to be brightly illuminated at night. The lights surrounding the basin were added in 1886, and the round glass globes replaced the original gas fixtures when the fountain was fitted for electric lighting in 1915.