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Patience, Fortitude, and Their Elegant Older Sisters

Updated: Sep 18, 2023

You may know the New York Public Library's famous lions, Patience and Fortitude, but did you know about their regal, older sisters just a few blocks away?

In 1903, Charles McKim of the famed McKim, Mead, and White architectural firm, was hired to design JP Morgan’s private library in Murray Hill. McKim’s friend and prominent sculptor, Daniel Chester French, recommended Edward Clark Potter as the sculptor for the grand entrance facing 36th Street. Potter was one of the most outstanding “animaliers” working in the States, specializing in animal subjects. Potter quoted McKim $10,000 for the completed pair of sculptures.

McKim had envisioned maned lions, but Potter, after sketching live models at the brand new Lion House at the Bronx Zoo, produced a pair of lionesses instead. After visiting Potter's Greenwich, Connecticut studio, Daniel Chester French reassured McKim in a letter, "You have always credited me with having a sense of what constitutes the monumental in sculpture and I think this is it!”

The finished sculptures were carved from Tennessee marble. (Fun fact: Tennessee marble isn't true marble but a crystalline limestone found only in East Tennessee. Resembling marble, especially when polished, it's pinkish-gray color and durability made it popular building material in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Grand Central Terminal's Grand Concourse floor is laid with the Tennessee marble.)

In 1911, Potter was called upon again to design the lions in front of the new New York Public Library. This was after Teddy Roosevelt lobbied, and was overruled, that the statues should represent bison, elk, or moose that he believed were more American.

Placing images of lions in front of institutions is a tradition that goes back to the ancient Egyptians when sphinxes (lion body with a head of a pharaoh), protected important buildings as spiritual guardians. Can you imagine two bison, elk, or moose in front of the Carrère & Hastings-designed classical Beaux Arts NYPL?

When Potter’s lions were unveiled (also carved from Tennessee marble), critics deemed them too tame, mild, and catlike. Today, the NYPL lions are Potter’s most recognized work and beloved by New Yorkers and visitors. It was NYC Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia who unofficially named them Patience (on the left) and Fortitude (right) during the Great Depression, saying they represented the attitude of New Yorkers — who are, by no means, known for being tame and mild.

If you visit Patience and Fortitude at the NYPL, take a few minutes to walk from 42nd Street to the Morgan Library on 36th Street at Madison Avenue. What would you name these elegant lionesses? To me, I think they should be called two other attributes of New Yorkers, Grit and Resilience.

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