The two lions that guard the entrance to the New York Public Library’s main branch on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street are among the most famous statues in America. They’ve appeared in children’s books and in countless tourist selfies. They had a cameo in the movie The Wiz. They’ve even been recreated in Legos.
Their sculptor was Edward Clark Potter, class of 1882, who spent three semesters at Amherst before leaving for art school. He earned $8,000 for the commission. Well-regarded among his peers but little known to the public, Potter specialized in animals, especially horses. He is the artist behind a Paris statue of George Washington on horseback, for example.
But the two male lions, carved from pink Tennessee marble, brought him mostly grief. “When they were still new arrivals,” reported The New York Times in 2011, “passers- by complained that they were ‘squash-faced’ and ‘mealy-mouthed and complacent.’” One letter writer “said that they looked like ‘a cross between a hippopotamus and a cow.’”
Six months after the library’s May 23, 1911, dedication, The New York Times described Potter as “sculptor of the much-criticized lions of the New York Public Library.”
When Potter died in 1923, he most likely considered the lions “a humiliating failure,” according to a book about the library’s architecture. Yet in time, they became treasured landmarks.
A lesson can be gleaned from the names bestowed on the lions in the 1930s by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who, according to the library, wanted to name them “for the qualities he felt New Yorkers would need to survive the economic depression.” Those names: Patience and Fortitude.