Atlas

  • Sculptor: Lee Lawrie
  • Dedicated: 1937
  • Medium and size: Overall 45 feet; bronze figure (15 feet) with armillary sphere (21-foot diameter), granite pedestal (9 feet)
  • Location: In front of the International Building of Rockefeller Center, 630 Fifth Avenue, between 50th and 51st Streets
  • Subway: B, D, F, V to 47-50th Streets - Rockefeller Center

Atlas Rockefeller Center

Tiffany’s Atlas

The Tiffany's Atlas is 160 years old and counting - or perhaps this is a descendant with a very close resemblance. In 1853, Charles Tiffany commissioned a maker of ship figureheads to create an Atlas sculpture for his store's third headquarters, at 550 Broadway. The 9-foot-tall wooden figure was painted to look like bronze.

Tiffany's 1858

Above: Tiffany's facade in 1858, illuminated to celebrate the completion of the transatlantic cable.

Tiffany's 
1910

Above: In a photo taken ca. 1900, when Tiffany's was on Union Square, Atlas  patiently supports his clock on the right side of the second story.

Tiffany's Fifth Ave.

Above: And here's Atlas in his present domicile, on the second story of Tiffany's at Fifth Avenue and 57th St.

Art for Totalitarian Purposes

(This fascinating story was cut from Outdoor Monuments of Manhattanfor lack of space.)

Although art's function is not didactic, totalitarian regimes and their supporters often attempt to use art for propaganda. A case in point is Diego Rivera, the most controversial Rockefeller Center artist.

While in New York for a retrospective show at the newly founded Museum of Modern Art, Rivera was commissioned to do the 63 x 17-foot mural in the entrance lobby to the RCA (now GE) Building, the Center's seventy-story focal point. Rivera did a sketch that purported to show intelligence controlling the forces of nature. While painting the fresco in early 1933, however, Rivera turned one side of the mural into a stereotypical Communist view of the United States, rife with drinking, gambling and veneral disease. Then he transformed the face of a large, anonymous workers' leader near the center into a portrait of Lenin that was straight out of a Russian propaganda poster.

New Yorkers who came to observe the mural's progress were offended. Nelson Rockefeller wrote to Rivera in early May 1933, before the RCA Building officially opened:

The piece is beautifully painted, but it seems to me that [Lenin's] portrait, appearing in this mural, might very easily seriously offend a great many people. If it were in a private house it would be one thing, but this mural is in in a public building and the situation is therefore quite different. As much as I dislike to do so, I am afraid we must ask you to substitute the face of some unknown man where Lenin's face now appears. (New York Times 5/10/1933)

Rivera replied, "Rather than mutilate the conception, I should prefer the physical destruction of the conception in its entirety, but preserving, at least, its integrity." When the building opened for business the mural was left under wraps. That same month, the Rivera episode was brilliantly rendered into verse by E.B. White in "I Paint What I See" (New Yorker 5/20/1933).

But White's final line implied Rivera's triumph too soon. Nine months later, Rivera remained adamant about preserving Lenin but accepted payment in full for his work. The Rockefellers had the mural removed so a new one could be installed. 

Cross References

  • On the Museum of Modern Art and on the theme of the artworks at Rockefeller Center, see Prometheus.
  • Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan discusses how the style of a sculpture can affect your reaction to it, even when the subject is one that you like. The sidebar is from Atlas Shrugged.

Copyright (c) 2013 Dianne L. Durante