The first illustration in this article is Will O’The Wisp located at the end of the Colonnade Garden at Oakhurst in Muncie, Indiana. The sculpture shows a girl standing on the back of a snapping turtle. According to visitmuncie.org, the back of the shell is signed, “Edward Borse, Sc, Gorham Co., GFC Foundries.” The statue is owned by Ball State University. I am assuming that “Sc” is an abbreviation for “sculptor” and that Gorham Co. is the Gorham Manufacturing Company of Providence, Rhode Island. A will o’the wisp is a glow in the air over marshy ground that disappears when approached, and is used metaphorically to mean a goal that cannot be achieved.
When I saw the photograph of this statue, I searched for more information about the statue or the sculptor, but could find nothing. After this article was published I discovered that the attribution to Edward Borse is an error; the actual sculptor is Edward Berge. The caption has been corrected.
Some general information about works of art with girls or women standing on turtles was found. Phidias (circa 480 – 420 BC) may have been the first sculptor to create a statue of a female standing on a turtle. His gold and ivory statue of the goddess Aphrodite depicts her with one foot on a small turtle. Plutarch (circa AD 46 – after 119) commented on the statue, and wrote that because a turtle is always at home in its shell, and has no voice, it represents the ideal woman who always remains at home and does not speak. Apparently Plutarch was not a feminist. This interpretation of the turtle is suspect because Aphrodite was a sexually adventurous goddess, the opposite of a quiet homebody. Others have speculated that the turtle may have been used sarcastically. I find the statue Aprodite with a small turtle under one foot reminiscent of statues of the Virgin Mary with a small serpent under one foot. Just as these statues of Mary represent her victory over the evil represented by the serpent, perhaps Phidias’ statue is meant to show Aphrodite crushing underfoot the stereotype for the “ideal woman” represented by the turtle.
Plutarch’s interpretation seems to have influenced later artists, and it is common to find depictions that were created during the Renaissance and later, through the 18th century, of women on turtles. The example shown here is an illustration from On the Excellence of the Female Sex by Johan van Beverwijck. Now it is obvious that the woman is not trampling on the turtle, but rather is riding it. In this illustration from 1643 the female on the turtle is still an adult, but in later examples of this motif it is usually a child on the turtle. Some modern statues show a boy on a turtle, but a girl is more common.
Seaweed Fountain by Beatrice Fenton is one of the most famous statues of a young girl on a turtle. Beatrice Fenton (1887 – 1983) was one of the outstanding American sculptors of the early 20th century. Fenton was awarded the George D. Widener Memorial Gold Medal in 1922 for Seaweed Fountain. Mary Wilson Wallace was the model for Seaweed Fountain; she was six years old when she posed for it.
Girl Standing on a Turtle was for sale at the Chamberlain Auction Gallery in 2020. This 57-inch high bronze scupture is a fountain; water comes out of the shell the girl holds, and also out of the turtle’s mouth.
Tortoise Shell Express is a cast stone statue sold by Garden-Fountains. Strangely, the sculptor is not named. The girl stands on a land tortoise. Seaweed Fountain and Girl Standing on a Turtle are both sea turtles, and Will O’The Wisp is a fresh water snapping turtle. I cannot identify the species of turtle in Illustration from On the Excellence of the Female Sex, but apparently it makes no difference.
Mädchen auf einer Schildkröte is a stone sculpture by Oskar Bottoli and is on display in Vienna, Austria. The girl sits on a land tortoise.