"Alma Mater” is a famous sculpture at Columbia University, installed in 1904 in front of the Low Memorial Library (formerly the campus library building). The sculptor Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) designed Alma Mater based on the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena. Columbia’s Morningside campus was dubbed an “Acropolis” in the 1890s.
Actress Mary Lawton has been credited as the Alma Mater model. In a 1913 article in the New York (NY) Sun, French praised Lawton’s hands and arms, although he did not mention her face.
Wikipedia: Alma Mater (New York sculpture)
Alma Mater is a sculpture of the goddess Athena by Daniel Chester French which is located on the steps leading to the Low Memorial Library on the Morningside Heights campus of Columbia University in Manhattan, New York City. Sculpted in 1903 and installed in 1904, it was donated in memory of alumnus Robert Goelet of the Class of 1860 by his wife, Harriette W. Goelet. Alma Mater The statue has become a symbol of the university.
An owl is hidden in the folds of Alma Mater‘s cloak near her left leg, a symbol of knowledge and learning, and college superstition has it that the first member of the incoming class to find the owl will become class valedictorian. The legend at another time was that any Columbia student who found the owl on his first try would marry a girl from Barnard.
In 1962 the statue was gilded, but the gilding was removed after protests. In the 1960s and 70s, the radical group the Weather Underground planned to blow up the statue, but these plans were shelved after the group managed to blow much of itself up inside a Greenwich Village row house instead.
Daniel Chester French
Typical of French’s monuments, the statue of “Alma Mater” is rich with imagery. “Alma Mater” sits in a klismos chair, arms stretched upward. In her right hand is a sceptor which ends in four heads of wheat which hold a crown, part of the original seal of King’s College. The chair arms each have a lamp which symbolizes Sapientia (Wisdom) and Doctrina (Teaching). An open Bible rests on “Alma Mater’s” lap.
“Alma Mater’s” face is one of the most beautiful in French’s output. The model may have been Mary Lawton, an actress and friend of French’s.
9 November 1913, The Sun (New York, NY), Pictorial Magazine (fourth sec.), pg. 5, col. 1:
POSSIBILITIES OF THE DRAMATIC POWER AND EXPRESSION OF THE HANDS AND ARMS
Miss Mary Lawton, Whose Hands and Arms Are Considered Ideal, Says We Are Far Behind in the Technic of Their Movements in Dramatic Art
Daniel Chester French, the Sculptor, Has Used Miss Lawton’s Hands and Arms in Many of His Figures—Duse’s Remarkable Power
Heroic figure by Daniel Chester French, for hands and arms of which Miss Lawton posed.
Old Fulton NY Post Cards
17 June 1935, Syracuse (NY) Journal, “On Broadway” by Walter WInchell, pg. 11, col. 2:
The model for Alma Mater at the Columbia University library was Mary Lawton, an American actress.
Cast in the Shadow:
Models for Public Sculpture in America
By Jennifer Gordon
Williamstown, MA: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute
Although it is very likely that the actress Mary Lawton, a close friend of French, posed for the figure of Alma Mater, the statue is not at all a portrait. It was meant to be an allegorical representation of the University’s seal.