By Nicholas Wu
A Black woman whose unique place in art history had faded with time is gaining prominence again, as members of her family and a local historian pieced together her story.
An Upper West Sider played a key role. On a fall day last year, Eve Kahn was enjoying a stroll through the 150th year anniversary exhibition at the Met, when she came across noted American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ reduced-scale Victory Statue on the Sherman Monument, which is located in the Grand Army Plaza at the Southeast corner of Central Park. She read the label and learned of the model who had posed for Saint-Gaudens, Hettie Anderson — a black woman who posed for a number of famous artists and who later worked at the Met. “My eyes stung for a moment because I realized she could have been standing where I was standing, looking at a version of her younger self covered in gold,” said Eve.
Eve, a historian and journalist, was fascinated by the story and reached out to staff at the Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park in Cornish, New Hampshire. Henry Duffy, the curator, connected her with Willow Hagans of Detroit, Michigan, who is a relative of Hettie, known to her as “Cousin Tootie.”
A petition started by Eve Kahn to rename a street for Hettie Anderson. Photo of Anderson in the 1890s is from Norman L. Coe Studio.
Forty years ago, Willow Hagans began to investigate Hettie’s story after a conversation with her late husband’s grandmother, Mamma Jeanne. “We were talking and I said we’re going into New York this weekend, and she said, ‘Oh, say hello to Cousin Tootie,’” explained Willow. “Then she went on to talk about Cousin Tootie and about how in the family there wasn’t a lot of discussion about her because she was taking off her clothes at the turn of the century, and that wasn’t something young women did.” Willow and her husband searched through death records in New York for any trace of Cousin Tootie, and they would spend the next 40 years trying to uncover her story. Once Eve joined the mission, she began searching through archives and old newspapers, while also reaching out to researchers to search through cemetery and courthouse records.
Cousin Tootie was born in Columbia, South Carolina in 1873 as Hettie Dickerson, but became known as Hettie Anderson while she modeled in New York. “You have to understand, there’s this huge research obstacle that we were able to overcome, which is that Dickerson is her last name. We don’t know when she changed her name and why,” explained Eve. “It’s even spelled Dickson in some records!” Though her family was listed in historical records as “free colored persons,” late 19th century economic decline and racism in the South caused many black people to move to the North, including Hettie and her mother. They chose New York City and settled in an apartment on 94th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.
Unlike in the South, Hettie found a thriving arts scene and welcoming community in New York and on the Upper West Side. When asked about Hettie’s daily interactions in the neighborhood and with other Upper West Siders, Willow said that although she frequently traveled around the country, “[There was] a constant stream of people, either coming to have their dresses fitted with her and her mother, or her going off to model for someone nearby. I think they were always sort of quietly busy.”
Hettie’s career took off while living on the Upper West Side. Before Saint-Gaudens’ 1903 Sherman Monument, she was painted by American artist John La Farge for a mural at Bowdoin College’s Walker Art Building. Later, when President Theodore Roosevelt commissioned Saint-Gaudens to design the $20 coin, he chose her for his 1905 Liberty gold coin. Sculptor Adolph Alexander Weinman chose Hettie as the model for his early 1900s statue Civic Fame, which sits atop the David N. Dinkins Municipal Building in Lower Manhattan. When Weinman was later commissioned to design the 1916 Mercury dime coin, he asked for Hettie as his model, but the final design ended up changing. She also posed for sculptor Daniel Chester French’s Truth from 1897 and Angel of Peace from 1912, among others.
Eve has created a petition to rename the block on 94th between Broadway and Amsterdam after Hettie Anderson, seeking to go before the Community Board to present her idea. Eve estimated that less than 25% of the streets co-named after someone in Community Board 7’s area are named after women.
Hettie Anderson made a name for herself while living on the Upper West Side, but her contributions have faded with time. However, thanks to the hard work of Eve Kahn and Willow and Bill Hagans, a new generation can learn her important role in art history.