The Four Continents—four statues adorning the facade of the former United States Custom House—are allegorical representations of the four continents: Asia, America, Europe, and Africa. Created by Daniel Chester French, they represent the vision of Custom House architect Cass Gilbert, who chose the theme to represent the building’s main function—international commerce.
Flanking the main entrance are America and Europe; Asia and Africa are on the sides. All four are represented by female figures, which are in turn surrounded by supporting figures and feature an impressive number of symbolic detail.
Asia, withdrawn, has her eyes closed. The exotic, far away continent is associated with mystery and religion as well as adversity.
In her lap is an idol, symbolizing false worship, while behind her is a cross, rising as a symbol of hope. Her feet rest on human skulls, which symbolize all the people killed through bondage and forced labor.
A tiger sits by her side, awaiting her command; with her left hand she holds a poppy flower, a source of opium—which might explain her withdrawn condition.
The group to her right are three men—bound, abused, and malnourished. The group symbolizes people’s sufferings on the continent before the advent of Christianity.
Asia is essentially represented as a mystical place mislead by false worship.
America is young, beautiful, and energetic. She is the only figure of the four that is in motion, ever-ready to stand up and go.
America’s right foot rests on an image of the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl, while across her lap are sheaves of corn symbolizing American bounty. Her hand holds a torch that symbolizes light and enlightenment.
The left side of her throne is decorated with Mayan glyphs. An eagle, symbolizing the United States of America, sits right next to a native American plant called the nopal cactus (known as a prickly pear.) Behind her is a figure of a Native American. These details accentuate American history—unique and different from other continents.
On the right side is a figure of a strong, athletic man holding a tool in his left hand while keeping another on a wheel of progress. America is protecting him with her cape—they are a team. In contrast with the other supporting figures, this one is active and alert.
America stands for liberty, enlightenment, prosperity and progress.
Europe—majestic, static, and composed—proudly sits on her throne. Though she represents the old world with its history and accomplishments, her true glory lies in the past . . .
She sits up gazing straight ahead of her. The hem of her clock is decorated with European coats of arms.
The crown on her head looks like a fortress; the string of pearls are meant to tell us how prosperous her continent is.
Her throne is decorated with a frieze from the Parthenon in Athens. Her right hand is touching the prow of a ship representing European conquests during the age of discovery.
Her left arm rests on a huge book—a metaphor for knowledge—which in turn rests on a huge globe, representing exploration and discovery.
Behind Europe sits a cloaked figure (representing ancient history? time?) contemplating a laurel-wreathed skull, which likely suggests that Europe remains stuck in her memories.
Though Europe stands for intelligence, knowledge, history, she lives only in her glorious past.
Africa is still sleeping . . . a young woman who is beautiful but not yet ready for action.
She is surrounded by a sphinx and a lion—easily recognizable symbols of the continent.
The Sphinx is weathered by the centuries of the sand and heat.
The mighty lion, resting upon some ancient ruin, is also asleep.
Behind the Sphinx sits a mysterious figure, shrouded in a cloak. Though it’s impossible to tell whether the figure is a man or a woman, it’s undoubtedly sleeping—perhaps to symbolize the mystical, undiscovered nature of Africa.
Africa, despite the great achievements and great power of its past, is not ready. She needs to wake up . . .
The Four Continents were created as a part of the architectural design of the Custom House. The idea of sculpture and architecture as an ensemble is consistent with the principles of City Beautiful—a movement proclaiming that public architecture should be grandiose and beautiful. A closer look at the statues allows one not only to admire the sculptor’s skill but also to gain a glimpse of an early-20th century view of the continents—giving us a rather unique and captivating history lesson.