The Story of the Three Bares

Fall 2005

For decades, McGill students have trooped past it day after day or relaxed with friends in the hollow where it stands, just west of the main campus avenue. It is the most recognizable art object on McGill grounds, and it has become nearly as iconic of the University as the cupola on the Arts Building or the Roddick Gates. Few of the students who pass by, though, could tell you the story of the fountain everyone knows as the Three Bares. There is no historical marker, no nameplate acknowledging the benefactors – just a marble statue in a small octagonal pool, brightening up the tree-lined dell that is overshadowed by the Redpath Museum.

In the 75 years since the Bares first came to McGill, the statue has meant many things to many people. For Sir Arthur Currie, McGill’s principal when the “Good Will Fountain” was presented as a gift in 1930, it was an annoyance and unanticipated expense in the middle of the Great Depression. For one prudish graduate of 1911 who wrote to the McGill Daily to “deplore the erection of three naked male figures in a prominent position on the Campus,” the statue was “a menace to our pure-thinking girls and boys” (although the letter was quite possibly a hoax). The statue’s creator, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, offered a cryptic description, claiming it was “symbolic of the nation’s strength implanted in the fertility of the soil.” It has been the target of pranks and the subject of paintings, and at each Convocation a steady stream of graduating students and their families pose for souvenir snapshots in front of the once provocative young men. Few would think the statue controversial today, but anyone who has attended McGill since the 1930s can recall the Three Bares.

The official unveiling of the Three Bares in 1931
McGill Archives

Kitsch or Culture

“Great Art they are not,” says Faith Wallis bluntly – fond as she is of the Bares – “and the fountain has never really worked properly.” Wallis, BA’71, MA’74, MLS’76, is a McGill professor of History and Social Studies of Medicine, who researched the statue for McGill Archives in 1976. Its value may be questionable, “but the tale of how Whitney and her celebrity buddies managed to con McGill into giving this rather dubious piece of kitsch a home is part of our ludic legend.”

The fountain started as the brainchild of Ellen Ballon, DMus’54. As a child piano prodigy in the early 1900s, Ballon studied at the McGill Conservatory with its celebrated instructor, Clara Lichtenstein (later in her career, Ballon was described by the virtuoso Artur Rubinstein as “the greatest pianistic genius I have ever met”). She left the Conservatory for further schooling in New York – funded by the patronage of Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, BCL1864, LLD1898, and McGill principal Sir William Peterson – and debuted with the New York Symphony at the age of 12. As an adult concert pianist, Ballon moved in prominent artistic and social circles and eventually turned part of her attention to philanthropy. Before the Good Will Fountain project, she had established a piano scholarship in her name at McGill’s Faculty of Music in 1928.

One of Ballon’s important friends in New York was Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a daughter of the Vanderbilt financial empire who had married into another of America’s Gilded Age fortunes when she wed Harry Payne Whitney. In her 20s, at around the same time the younger Ballon was amazing McGill audiences with her childhood aptitude for Beethoven, Whitney embraced the world of art. She began to study sculpture, first in New York, and then in Paris under the great French sculptor Auguste Rodin. Working in her own studios in Greenwich Village and Paris, Whitney eventually had works on display in the U.S., Spain, France and South America. Her sculptures included war memorials, fountains – her ornate Fountain of El Dorado done for the World’s Fair in 1912 in San Francisco would end up in Lima, Peru – even a statue of Wild West legend Buffalo Bill Cody.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s 18-foot granite memorial statue commemorating the victims of the Titanic disaster before it was put on permanent public display in Washington.
Photo courtesy Thomas Crane Public Library,Quincy,MA

Her Titanic Memorial commemorating the heroism of the men on the doomed ship who had insisted on “women and children first” was unveiled by U.S. President Herbert Hoover in Washington, D.C., a few days before the Three Bares would be presented at McGill (and the stance of the figure in Whitney’s memorial, with its cruciform, outstretched arms, will be familiar to fans of the 1997 blockbuster movie about the disaster).

In addition to her sculpture, Whitney became a philanthropist and patron of the arts, with an important, growing collection of contemporary American works from artists she had sponsored. When she offered the collection – and a new wing to house it – to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, she was rather shortsightedly turned down, and she went on to become the first woman to found a major art museum, opening the Whitney Museum of American Art.

An Offer We Couldn’t Refuse

It was around this time that Ellen Ballon was deciding that one of Whitney’s sculptures would make a wonderful gift to McGill, as a gesture of friendship between the United States and Canada. Ballon chose a ten-foot, quasi-classical sculpture that featured three mournful-looking and naked young men holding on their shoulders an earthen bowl adorned with leaves and ivy. She assembled a presentation committee of prominent Americans that included politicians and university presidents, among others, and wrote to Sir Arthur Currie that the fountain would be “a Friendship gift to McGill University by American Admirers of Canada and Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney, the distinguished Sculptress.” Faith Wallis noted for Archives: “Since Mrs. Whitney offered to pay for the shipping and installation of the fountain, and since it was presented by such a committee of notables, it was a gift which the University could see no reason to refuse.”

Whitney in her studio
Nicholas Murray/George Eastman House

Here the trouble started for Sir Arthur. With an elaborate ceremonial presentation of the statue scheduled for November 1, 1930, Whitney’s husband, Harry, died suddenly and the proceedings were abruptly cancelled. They were rescheduled for May 29, 1931, the Spring Convocation, but this time Mrs. Whitney herself became ill and had to send her daughter to represent her. Nonetheless, Ellen Ballon was in enthusiastic attendance, as were many eminent guests on both sides.

Presenting the statue for the Americans was educator and New York Times editor John Finley. Accepting was the Governor General of Canada, the Earl of Bessborough, in his official capacity as McGill Visitor. The Depression was on, but all ignored a student waving a placard that read, “This is the most distinguished parade of the unemployed so far this year.” Amid appropriate pomp, swathed in the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes, the statue was finally unveiled and respective anthems sounded.

McGill had its Three Bares. But for Sir Arthur, two more years of headaches would ensue until his own death in 1933. Whitney had not yet come through with the money for completing the installation. The University had been paying architect Percy Nobbs to build an appropriate pool for the statue, and it had been absorbing other related costs as well: $2,050 in all, a large sum when they were cutting salaries on campus in extraordinarily tight financial times. Canadian Customs unhelpfully valued the artwork at $50,000, which McGill hotly disputed in an attempt to reduce import duties. Meanwhile, the statue in its unfinished state was boxed up the year after its unveiling.

McGill Architecture professor Percy Nobb’s artistic rendering of the proposed pond for the Three Bares fountain.
Canadian Architecture Collection, McGill University

The Fountain – Finally

Growing increasingly impatient, Currie threatened to banish the thing to some less prominent corner of the campus if it was not completed soon: “I cannot leave it as it is,” he wrote in frustration to Ellen Ballon. Finally, in 1933, the money arrived, pipe connections were fitted, and the pool was finished. The Montreal Herald announced, “McGill’s famous fountain – which has thus far been that in name only – will become a fountain in fact.” On July 4, American Independence Day, water flowed for the first time from the Good Will Fountain.

It has gone by other names: the Friendship Fountain, the Whitney Fountain, as well as the Three Graces, owing possibly, says Faith Wallis, to the analytical musings of the then Governor General’s secretary, who may have forgotten the Graces are usually three young goddesses (though often portrayed in a similar formation to the Three Bares).

Whatever its muddled symbolic meaning, the statue soon suffered from very clear and unsightly rust stains: cast iron piping had been used for its waterworks. Students were quick to target the fountain as well. There was no telling when one might walk by to see the Three Bares sporting winter coats or lacy blue underwear that had been painted onto their marble rumps, or bearing the names of some unfortunate math professors. Swimsuits were a popular theme. No doubt in the interests of aesthetic symmetry, some male students proposed a statue of three naked ladies for the opposite side of the avenue.

Others expressed acid criticism. One wrote to the Daily to ridicule this “mid-Victorian mantelpiece.” In the same pages, another wag suggested that “a replica could be used as a fruit bowl.” Someone slightly more high-minded complained about honouring American artists at the expense of Canada’s own: “France honours Tait McKenzie with his bronze group of runners… [yet] no such group ornaments his University!” (McKenzie, MDCM1892, would eventually be honoured – his statue, The Falcon, can be found on the McLennan Library terrace.)

Bares Care

In 1937, to protect it from harsh Montreal winters, a wooden hutch was built to encase the fountain, and today it has become a sure sign of spring to see the hutch being removed and the statue revealed once again. General maintenance is ongoing, says Eric Champagne, a horticultural supervisor with McGill Facilities Management and Development whose responsibilities include the upkeep of the Bares.

Students returning to McGill in the autumn regularly use the area surrounding the Three Bares for a temporary outdoor pub.
Nicolas Morin

“The bottom of the pool was repainted this year,” says Champagne. “The old paint had peeled and it was impossible to clean, because algae and dirt get encrusted in the cement. We also have a problem with the surrounding black walnut trees: the nuts fall into the pool and stain the bottom.”

Maintenance on the actual statue is left to specialists. “We don’t touch the Three Bares themselves. There’s a company that uses high-pressure water to clean them off. In the past, parts have been cracked and glued back – it’s an old statue and we don’t want to damage it.”

Over the years, the fountain has hosted town and gown receptions, student protests, visiting scholarly groups and tykes from nearby daycare centres. “It was the scene of outdoor concerts in the ’60s where the blue smoke of the counterculture was so thick you could get high just walking by the area!” recounts Emeritus Professor of Architecture Derek Drummond, BArch’62. These days, come September, the Bares watch over the hubbub of the return to classes and are at the centre of the student-run Open Air Pub that features bands, food and plenty of beer to welcome students during Frosh Week. It’s an inviting space for everyone.

“More important than the sculpture is the shape of the space,” says Drummond, “giving it a sense of enclosure and the feeling of an outdoor room. One could argue that the most important role of the sculpture has been to make the space difficult for sports events. The two lower quads host all sorts of games, but the Three Bares quad is used almost exclusively for social events.”

The protective hutch that safeguards the Three Bares during the winter months is removed each spring.
Photo courtesy Facilities Management and Development

The fountain has seen the campus change bit by bit; the great elm trees that once lined its main avenue have died, generations of students have moved on with their lives. It has been joined farther down the avenue by another high-profile statue: of the University’s founder, James McGill. And despite its early controversies, this gift from McGill’s American friends has created a place on campus that is imprinted fondly on the memory of many a graduate.

“I think the story of the Three Bares is a wonderfully typical McGill joke,” says Faith Wallis, “and as such, I have deep and abiding affection for them.”

Many more would agree: it’s hard to imagine McGill without them.

Share this article:

Comments are closed.