Her Face Symbolized ‘Victory’; Now Hettie Anderson’s Amazing Story is Finally Being Told

Hettie Anderson was the model for the Victory Statue at the southeast corner of Central Park. Photo by Nicholas Wu.

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.

The front door of Hettie Anderson’s building that she lived in with her mother up until her death in 1938. Photo by Gavin Levy.

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.

ART, HISTORY, NEWS | 20 comments | permalink
    1. UWS coin collector says:

      Hettie Anderson was also on the Saint Gaudens $20 gold coin, the obverse of which is still being used on American Gold Eagle coins today as well as the Indian Head $10 gold coin which is really Hettie Anderson as Lady Liberty wearing a headdress.

    2. Lizzie says:

      As I’ve watched the debate about the statues of Confederate leaders (and the statue of TR at the AMNH), I’ve wondered if modern reassessment will someday come for this monument. Sherman was a ruthless albeit successful general, and his final “scorched earth” march through the South was brutally destructive. He famously said that “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.” And regardless of his being on the winning side, the statue is a monument to war.

      Wouldn’t it be great to excise Sherman and his horse, and leave Victory (and Hettie) there alone?

      • Andrew Z says:

        I have wondered the same about this statue. The tactic was called “Total War”, and this general pillaged and burned Atlanta to the ground. The entire statue (just like Teddy) according to today’s standards of removal.

      • Rachel Hager says:

        Nope. Wouldn’t be grand. We have an obligation to History to continue to commemorate what we like and don’t like about our country. Taking down a statue of TR, doesn’t change the facts. Frankly, it would be far more beneficial for kids of all races and ethnic backgrounds to have a better contextual understanding of the times that were rather than trying to fit all of the past through the lens of what is now. People, please. Can we stop throwing out the baby with the bath water?

        • SCPNYC says:

          I agree completely. The same for the removal of Jefferson’s statue downtown. It’s better to explain the complexity in a plaque than remove the entire statue.

      • General William Tecumseh Sherman was a brilliant strategist & commander & it’s through his & his great friend Grant’s efforts that the United States does NOT have a slave nation on its southern border.

        In 1864 and 1865, tens of thousands of freed slaves joined Sherman’s marches through Georgia and the Carolinas as refugees, and their fate soon became a pressing military and political issue.

        A spokesman for the black leaders at the time, Baptist minister Garrison Frazier, declared in response to Stanton’s inquiry about the feelings of the black community:

        “We looked upon General Sherman prior to his arrival as a man in the providence of God specially set apart to accomplish this work, and we unanimously feel inexpressible gratitude to him, looking upon him as a man that should be honored for the faithful performance of his duty. Some of us called upon him immediately upon his arrival, and it is probable he would not meet the Secretary [Stanton] with more courtesy than he met us.

        His conduct and deportment toward us characterized him as a friend and a gentleman.”

        This is the great man that you would so easily dishonor.

      • Lizzie, when you write: “Sherman was a ruthless albeit successful general, and his final “scorched earth” march through the South was brutally destructive.”

        I think rather that Sherman’s strategies SAVED lives.

        Liddell Hart credited Sherman with mastery of maneuver warfare, also known as the “indirect approach”. In maneuver warfare, a commander seeks to defeat the enemy on the battleground through shock, disruption, and surprise, while MINIMIZING FRONTAL ATTACKS ON WELL-DEFENDED POSITIONS (hence saving lives).

        In short, one of our best generals.

      • Paul says:

        Sherman commanded an army that, as Napoleon noted, lives on its stomach. Armies didn’t have the supply lines, trucks, etc they do now and had to rely on local food and provisioning to eat, replace horses, repair wagons, and more as they traveled through Georgia and to the coast.
        And what Sherman accomplisned literally changed history. If he had failed Lincoln would likely have lost his re-election campaign and the world would be a very different place.

    3. Michal says:

      This is incredibly cool – Thanks for sharing it.

      I hope she gets her street.

    4. Janet Sullivan says:

      How did she become an artists’ model?

    5. Wokester says:

      Man on horse. Woman on foot. That’s sexist. This statue must come down.

      • Miss Mary says:

        I’m hoping your comment was tongue-in-cheek.

      • UWSer says:

        Heddie Anderson depicts the winged allegorical figure of Victory, a triumphant guiding force. As “Nike” – the winged goddess of Victory, she wears a crown of laurel and holds a palm…both traditional emblems of Victory. The wind blown pose recalls that of the Hellenistic marble “Nike of “Samothrace” in The Louvre. Victory leads General Sherman to battle and ultimately to peace.
        The Grand Army Plaza statue by Augustus Saint- Gaudens, America’s greatest 19th century sculptor, is regarded as one of the finest equestrian monument in the world. In 1900, Saint-Gaudens was awarded the Gold Medal for it at the Universal Exposition in Paris. It was dedicated in NY in 1903.

    6. Just an observer says:

      Reading all the woke comments here and thinking: what what kind of country you are going to leave to your children. It will be a desert with neither history nor art. A blank page. Because the real heritage always include inconvenient truths and mistakes, and that’s how humankind makes progress.

    7. Sam Katz says:

      I think “Man on horse, woman on foot,” was tongue in cheek. Sherman did exactly what the United States needed him to do — win. Otherwise the statue would have been of Jefferson Davis, “Man on horse, woman in slave chains.” By the way, Sherman was a devoted patron of the theatre, and his photo hangs near the front desk of The Players’ Club.

    8. JANET MAC MILLAN says:

      Thank you for sharing this amazing story about Hettie Anderson. A street in her name is certainly well-earned. I will look for the art now in Manhattan for which she posed.

    9. DenaliBoy says:

      Does anyone notice the dramatic difference in appearance between the photo and the sculpture?

      • Having raised the issue: now that you mention it, they do look entirely dissimilar.

        Having written that, you have to factor in that- she may have modeled years before or after the shown photo, and that the sculpture is an idealistic representation of heroic larger than life figures, then gilded in gold, so anything is possible.