It was the cause celebre of 1896: a statue of a naked drunken woman was gifted to the new Boston Public Library by Charles Follen McKim, one of the men who designed the ‘palace for the people.’ McKim planned to install the sculpture in the new library’s courtyard.
The bronze statue, Bacchante and Infant Faun, was of a laughing young woman – naked of course -- dangling a bunch of grapes before the infant in her arms. It was created by Frederick MacMonnies, also known for his clothed statue of Nathan Hale, now in the National Gallery of Art. MacMonnies had given a cast of the statue to McKim as thanks for a $50 loan.
Harvard President Charles Eliot led the charge against the Bacchante, which the Boston Post characterized as the Naked Drunken Woman. They were especially offended by the idea that the drunken woman was offering liquor to her child.
It was a battle between Boston’s Puritans and Bohemians, and the Puritans won. (Some had even argued that Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ statue The Puritan be placed in the library.)
McKim gave up and donated the statue to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which called it ‘one of the most vibrant images in American art.’
Thomas Russell Sullivan, a Boston writer, declared, ‘the Philistines be upon us.’
Boston had become notorious for its prudery, and “Banned in Boston” was a catchphrase resulting from the overzealous censorship of the city’s Watch and Ward Society. From 1878 to the 1920s, the puritanical group of private citizens made Boston a target of scorn and – unintentionally – heightened interest in the books and plays it banned.
MacMonnies’ statue was no exception. The controversy allowed him to sell many small replicas of the sculpture.
It wasn’t the first time a nude image associated with the library caused an uproar. The sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens had sculpted two young boys holding up the library seal. The marble nudes and the seal were mounted over the library’s main entrance.
The Boston Evening Record on Feb. 10, 1894, ran an editorial under the headline, WIPE OUT THE BLOT. It described “a pure-minded lad … [who] cried in anguish as he observed ‘See that thing they have put up there, papa, isn’t it horrible?’ Because it offended this ‘bright, clean, Boston boy,’ the Record argued, ‘This indecency must not remain!’
A century after the Naked Drunken Woman controversy, the Boston Public Library decided to bring back the Bacchante. A copy was made of the original, which stands in the Museum of Fine Arts. She and her infant are back in the fountain at the library’s courtyard, where Charles McKim originally intended it.