Tuesday, January 3, 2017

1830-1908: Harriet Hosmer

Engraving, 1873
Harriet Goodhue Hosmer was a sculptor of large-scale, Neoclassical works in marble. She was considered the most distinguished female sculptor in America during the 19th century. She is credited with opening the field of sculpture to women.

Background: The extraordinary stroke of luck that enabled Harriet to become America's first woman sculptor was that her father, Hiram Hosmer, a prominent physician, fully supported her artistic ambitions and was wealthy enough to finance them until she could support herself through her work.

Harriet was born in Watertown, Massachusetts. Her mother, sister and two infant brothers had died of tuberculosis before Harriet turned twelve. In response, her father Hiram pulled his only remaining child out of school and implemented an exercise regimen that turned Harriet into an all around athlete. Hiram also encouraged her outgoing personality and artistic interests.

Training: While Harriet was still a child she began to model animals from clay, and soon found that sculpting was her strength.

Harriet attended a progressive private high school that fostered independence, graduating in 1849, age 19. This school not only gave her a solid education, but also friends who supported her career ambitions. One of these was Cornelia Crow, the daughter of a successful businessman in St. Louis, Wayman Crow.

Since women were not allowed to work from live models, in 1850 Harriet moved from Massachusetts to St. Louis to take private lessons in anatomy at a medical college, and she lived with the family of her school friend, Cornelia Crow. Harriet received anatomy certification, and this made her the first woman to study at what later became the Washington University School of Medicine.

From 1853 to 1860 Harriet studied with a Welsh sculptor in Rome, where she could study from live models.

Private life: One of Harriet's early sculptures caught the eye of Charlotte Cushman, one of the most famous American actresses of her day. Charlotte was particularly admired for playing men's parts, a popular practice in 19th century theater. Soon after, Charlotte retired from the stage, and moved to Rome, and she invited Harriet to join her there. Charlotte was sharing her house with a long-term partner and other creative types. In 1853, at the age of 22, Harriet settled in Rome, and moving in with Charlotte and her friends. They were part of a busy social circle of artists and writers, and it is said that Harriet had numerous romantic relationships with women. She was a staunch feminist.

Harriet lived and worked in Rome from 1852 to 1900.

Harriet had a 25-year relationship with a widowed Scottish noblewoman named Louisa, Lady Ashburton.

From 1900 until her death in 1908, she lived in Watertown, Massachusetts, where she was born.

Harriet in 1857
by Mathew Brady
Career: When Harriet had completed her anatomical certification, she moved to her father's home in Boston and opened a studio. At that time, Boston was the center of the American art world.

In 1851 Charlotte Cushman, the most famous American actress of the era, was touring the US on what was supposed to be her farewell tour. Harriet took advantage of their mutual connections to visit her while she was in Boston. She soon began to spend a lot of time with this strong role model and they quickly developed a strong bond. When Charlotte moved to Rome and set up house-keeping with writer Mathilda Hays, Harriet decided to join them.

Harriet carved her first original marble bust, Hesper, the Evening Star, in 1852. Later that year, she moved to Rome. She was 22.

Hesper, the Evening Star, 1852
Watertown Free Public Library (MA)

Within 4 years of her arrival in Rome, Harriet became financially independent through sales of her work. This was good timing, because in 1854 her father had financial reversals which prevented him from continuing her support.

She had a strong connection with St. Louis, where she had studied anatomy. She sold her first commissoned work to Wayman Crow, father of her classmate Cornelia, and the second to a library in St. Louis. Much later, the state of Missouri commissioned a monumental bronze statue of Senator Thomas Hart Benton, a distant relative of the artist by the same name.

She preferred Neoclassical idealism to more naturalistic trends and rendered mythological and historical women with nobility and grandeur.

Harriet worked with a team of marble cutters, rather than do all the heavy chiseling herself, which she had found exhausting. She made a small model in clay, then the workmen would build a skeleton to support a full-size clay model that she finished herself. Skilled artisans duplicated exactly the full-size model into marble.

Harriet continued to be productive and popular during the 1860s, but in the 1870s and 1880s she sold less work.

Harriet also designed and constructed machinery and devised new processes for making sculpture, and even invented a method of converting ordinary limestone into marble.


In a late version of the Medusa myth, Medusa was originally a beautiful maiden, but Athena transformed her hair to serpents and made her face so terrible that it turned viewers to stone, because she had been raped by Poseidon in Athena's temple. Hosmer's version turns Medusa from a monster into a victim.

Medusa, c. 1854
Minneapolis / Jan's photo, 2013

Harriet created the following example out of financial necessity when her father could no longer support her in Rome. Due to the popularity of literary themes, Harriet chose Puck, the mischievous but adorable fairy from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Puck. The work was an instant success with the aristocracy and secured Harriet's fortune as a sculptor.

Puck, 1854
30" tall
Smithsonian / Internet

Harriet's first commission—Oenone—was from Wayman Crow, father of Harriet's friend Cornelia. Harriet had lived with the Crows in St. Louis while she studied anatomy. In Greek mythology, Oenone was the first wife of Paris of Troy, whom he abandoned for the queen Helen of Troy. This is her first full-size work, and it is admired for its realistic modeling as well as its romantic pathos.

Oenone, 1855
St. Louis / Internet

In 1857 Harriet was commissioned by a friend of Wayland Crow's to create Beatrice Cenci, a figure from Italian history that had recently been the subject of a play by the famous English poet Shelley. In the play, Beatrice arranged the murder of her father, who had abuse his wife and sons and raped Beatrice multiple times. After a sensational trial, she was beheaded.

Beatrice Cenci, 1857
Art Gallery of New South Whales / Internet

Beatrice Cenci, 1857
University of St. Louis / Internet

One of the most popular male sculptors of the period was Hiram Powers. In 1851 Powers exhibited a sculpture of a nude slave woman that was very popular. This statue, below, is really just an excuse to create an idealized nude female figure, with the titillating detail of chains.

Hiram Powers, 1805-1873
The Greek Slave, 1851

In 1959, Harriet created a sculpture of another slave. This one is a dignified queen, fully clothed and wearing her regalia, whose chains seem shameful. Called  Zenobia in Chains, it met with tremendous acclaim when exhibited in Boston. In 1862 she exhibited Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra in London, which was very popular. Some critics questioned whether a work of such sublime expression, and requiring such power of hand and arm in the carving, could have been done by a woman. Numerous bust-size versions were carved to meet demand.

Zenobia, the Queen of Palmyra, c. 1859
St. Louis / Jan's photo, 2010

I believe the sculpture below is a reaction to a famous sculpture known as the Barberini Faun, a Greek sculpture (or Roman copy) of a drunken satyr with his legs splayed and his detailed private parts exposed. That sculpture is to explicit for a course of this type.

The Sleeping Faun, c. 1864
Cleveland / Jan's photo, 2010

Harriet Hosmer in her Rome studio,
at work on a statue of Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton (1865).

Senator Tomas Hart Benton, 1865
Lafayette Park, St. Louis / Internet

Below, Harriet's last major work, a statue of Queen Isabella of Spain, commissioned by the city of San Francisco, was unveiled in 1894.

Queen Isabella, 1893
Displayed in the California Building at the 1893 World's Exposition in Chicago