Who are the people behind the figures on the Tyler Davidson Fountain in downtown Cincinnati?

Posted at 7:00 AM, Aug 07, 2017
and last updated 2017-08-07 09:03:11-04

CINCINNATI -- The figures on the Tyler Davidson Fountain have been watching us for 146 years. They've watched you spill your beer at Oktoberfest. They've watched you take your girlfriend to Salsa on the Square. They've watched your children skate around and around underneath the giant Christmas tree.

The original model for the Genius of Water can be found at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Provided by Cincinnati Art Museum

But who are those statues?

Daniel Kenny wrote in "Illustrated Cincinnati" that the fountain is the "noblest object of art in Cincinnati, and one of the most beautiful in the United States."

And Julie Aronson, curator of American paintings, sculpture and drawings at the Cincinnati Art Museum, is inclined to agree with Kenny's assessment.

"The fountain is the icon of downtown," said Aronson. "No one in those days would have seen anything like it. It's very interesting artistically."

The fountain story began in Munich in 1840 as the subject of a boozy conversation between Ferdinand von Miller, the director of the Royal Bavarian Bronze Foundry, and a German artist named August von Kreling. Acclaimed Cincinnati historian William F. Poole wrote that the two men were enjoying their drinks that evening while Miller described a fountain that extolled the "genius of water." The idea resonated with Kreling, who was waiting for an opportunity to eschew the mythical creatures that had dominated art for so long.

"Your idea is a good one and could be carried out without bringing in your absurd monsters," Kreling said to Miller.

When Kreling's abandonment of what he deemed "old fogy [sic] mythological rabble" was questioned, he began to sketch the figures he had in mind with the stub of his cigar on the table. He sketched a fountain that depicted water in its practical uses -- a farmer asking for rain, a mother bathing her child and steam-powered industry.

That crude, ashy sketch became the basis of the Genius of Water, also known as the Tyler Davidson Fountain.

Years later, businessman Henry Probasco approached the Royal Bavarian Bronze Foundry to commission a fountain in honor of his late business partner, Tyler Davidson. Probasco discovered that Kreling's ideas were consistent with Cincinnati values.

"The Yankee (Probasco) declined most emphatically to have anything to do with crowned heads, with divine or tailed women," Poole wrote. "In Cincinnati, they were not worshippers of these beings and they had very little respect for mythical ladies who were scantily clad."

The Cincinnati Gazette offered 19th-century Cincinnatians a sneak peek of their new fountain. Provided by the Cincinnati History Library and Archives

However, the final version on the fountain does depict a few scantily clad women.

Directly beneath the Genius of Water are two female figures: a woman giving water to her elderly father and a mother bathing her child. Though these women on the fountain represent water's healing and purifying power, it's possible that their likenesses were based on real and somewhat controversial figures.

Aronson noted that she hasn't found anything that definitively says on whom the figures were modeled.

"Von Kreling probably had his own models he used for the sketches," said Aronson. "It's not something I've come across."

Poole, however, wrote that fittingly, the woman shown caring for her ailing father was based on the likeness of Kreling's own daughter.

The other woman, a mother chasing her reluctant child, is rumored to be modeled on one of two famous women. The spirit of the fountain celebrates not only the utility of water, but an artistic marriage of tradition and innovation. The two women who may have inspired this maternal figure represent the ideas of antiquity and controversy, respectively.

In his book "Illustrated Cincinnati," Daniel Kenny mused that this figure may have been based on Thusnelda. Provided by Harvard University

In Kenny's "Illustrated Cincinnati," he briefly mentioned that the mother could have been based on Thusnelda, a venerable German matriarch. Thusnelda was the wife of the infamous "Hermann the German" who defeated the Roman legions in A.D. 9.

"She might have indeed been the very Thusnelda, whose love for Hermann, the great conqueror of Varro, and his legions, has passed alike into history and into song," Kenny wrote.

Dr. Don Heinrich Tolzmann, president of the German-American Citizens League, believes it's possible that the mother figure is based on Thusnelda. While depictions of Hermann exist in many cities around the world, images of Thusnelda are pretty rare.

So why would Kenny make the connection between Thusnelda and the fountain?

It's possible that's because of the strong ties the fountain has to German heritage. Aside from its creation in Munich, the timing of the fountain's dedication on Oct. 6, 1871, highlights the relationship between Germany and Cincinnati.

"That was the year of German unification after the Franco-Prussian War," said Tolzmann. "The sixth of October is the date of the first German settlement in America in Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1683. There was a tremendous sense of pride in Germany and for German heritage."

Another competing theory about the mother's identity exposes an additional link between Germany and the fountain.

Lola Montez's portrait was published in The Cincinnati Enquirer in 1936. Do you see the resemblance between her and the figure on the fountain? Provided by

"It is a piquant thought that after 65 years and a few days since its unveiling ... it should be discovered that one of the figures that grace the Tyler Davidson Fountain bears a striking resemblance to that celebrated adventuress, Lola Montez," reported The Cincinnati Enquirer in 1936.

In 1846, Irish-born actress named Lola Montez captured the heart of Bavaria and its king.

"Lola Montez was the mistress of the first King Ludwig who abdicated during the 1848 revolution. He wanted to give a title to Lola Montez and had her set up in an apartment in Munich," said Tolzmann.

King Ludwig I was well-known for supporting the arts and had immortalized the likeness of his beloved mistress in his famous "Gallery of Beauties." In fact, the Royal Bavarian Bronze Foundry, the place where the fountain was designed and cast, was actually commissioned by the king.

The author of the Enquirer article admitted that his evidence was thin, but had heard "third hand" that King Ludwig had commissioned a fountain from Miller at the foundry. It was rumored that perhaps the fountain was going to be three-dimensional version of his "Gallery of Beauties."

However, "it wasn't completed, possibly was still only models and drawings, when he (King Ludwig I) was forced to abdicate," the newspaper reported.

In fact, it was theorized that perhaps Probasco had gotten a deal on the fountain since it was an unfinished piece.

Though the real identities of these women are left to legend, the fountain and its figures continue to be inspire the Queen City.

A poem from The Richmond Telegram recounts the day the fountain was first unveiled. One particular stanza reminds us that the fountain's beauty and grandeur connects the past, present and future of our city.

"And the sun with a halo of glory,

Its charm to the spectacle lent,

The water rose higher and higher,

And soon from the outstretching hand,

The Genius poured down like a blessing,

The streams that shall gladden the land."

Special thanks to the Cincinnati History Library and Archives for assistance.