Summary of Harriet Hosmer
Not just one of her country's first significant female and gay artists, Hosmer was, with Edmonia Lewis, one of the two leading American sculptors of her generation. Her position as the foremost female sculptor went unchallenged during her lifetime, and she would become a role model for other female sculptors and artists then and since. Working in the Neoclassical style, her work ranged from portrait bust tributes, to life-sized figures. Hosmer lived the majority of her adult life in Rome, establishing her own studio in the city and becoming part of a colony of prominent artistic expatriates that included fellow Americans Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Henry James.
- Hosmer was a figurative sculptor, working mostly in marble, whose works depicted fateful heroines drawn from mythology, history, and even romantic literature. With a preference for the idealism of Neoclassicism over more naturalistic trends, she imbued her iconic figures (such as Oenone, Beatrice Cenci, and Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra) with a gracious authority. Her preference for female subjects reflected her undertaking to elevate the status of women in the nineteenth century society.
- Like its European counterparts, American Neoclassical sculpture was devoted to the idea of aesthetic beauty and produced idealized figures drawn from the worlds of Greek and Roman antiquity. However, Hosmer brought an added element of romantic intensity that packed a powerful emotional punch. Commenting on Hosmer's Oenone (1854-55), for instance, historian Erin Sutherland writes, she achieved a "romantic pathos, popular appeal and erudition, nudity and propriety, while remaining firmly grounded in the traditions of ancient sculpture".
- While her sculptures celebrated traditional values, Hosmer was a radical in the way she chose to live her public and private life. Bucking all the codes of decorum expected of a woman living in nineteenth century Rome, she pursued a life of female independence. Hosmer has secured a place in the histories of art, LGBT rights, and women's suffrage.
- Hosmer demonstrated great adaptability and acumen with the realization that Neoclassical art was being overtaken by a preference for naturalism. She devoted more time and energy to scientific and writerly pursuits. Although her inventions - including an artificial marble; a new wax-on-plaster sculpting method; and a blueprint for a perpetual motion device - and her writings - on Spiritualism, including a stage play - did not bring her the same fame and recognition as her sculptures, they underlined her independent spirit and helped cement her standing as a nineteenth century female role model.
The Life of Harriet Hosmer
Author Barbara Kailean Welsh said of Hosmer, "[she] didn't hold back. From birth to death, she challenged nineteenth century expectations of women, unwilling to accept anything less than full expression of the gifts she was given. She lived her truth, and she lived life to capacity".
Important Art by Harriet Hosmer
Hosmer made several bust sculptures during her career. Daphne was the first important piece she completed in the studio of sculptor John Gibson, soon after her arrival in Rome. It was a "statement piece"; an early indication of her mastery of the Neoclassical idiom which would define her oeuvre. Shown with breasts exposed, and her head turned gently to look pensively at something to her lower left, Hosmer's Daphne rests on a wreath of laurel which frames the lower part of the sculpture. It is to this day one of her best known pieces.
Like many great artists before her - including Peter Paul Rubens's, Apollo and the Python (1636-37), Gian Lorenzo Bernini's, Apollo and Daphne, (1622-25), and Nicolas Poussin's, Apollo and Daphne (1625) - Hosmer had been drawn to the story of Apollo (Greek god of healing, music and dance) and the huntress, Daphne. However, earlier interpretations of the myth focused on the story of Apollo's forest pursuit of Daphne (who had dedicated her life to perpetual virginity) who, in order to escape his affections, magically transforms into a laurel tree.
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, "rather than depicting the dramatic moment of escape, Hosmer modelled a serene image and symbolized Daphne's metamorphosis by terminating the bust in laurel branches". Author Barbara Kailean Welsh adds, "the finished Daphne was simple and graceful. The face was classically styled, the eyes unworked. The shoulders and breasts were bare exhibiting a skill described by Gibson as 'never surpassed and seldom equalled'".
Marble - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Clasped Hands of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning
As the title informs us, this bronze sculpture features a casting of the hand of poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Robert tightly and confidently grips the right hand of his wife in his own. Hosmer could count many important and influential artists, authors, and actors in her circle of European friends. One of her truest friendships was with the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her decision to memorialize her in this way says much about how Hosmer viewed her friend and her husband, and the tight bond they shared as partners in life and art.
According to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Elizabeth Browning consented [to this piece being made], provided that Hosmer complete the process herself rather than delegate it to studio assistants. The result is an intimate expression of the love between the Brownings, who had eloped to Italy seven years earlier, and of the warm friendship they shared with Hosmer. [...] Novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne characterized the sculpture, which was cast in both plaster and bronze, as 'symbolizing the individuality and heroic union of two high, poetic lives!'". As Welsh explains, "Harriet clearly admired the Browning's equitable marriage. She also believed that their hands had given the world some of its finest poetry". It seems only fitting then that this is how she would choose to honor her friends. This work was in fact the first work Hosmer ever cast in bronze. and one of her earliest works to bring her widespread public attention.
Bronze - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
In this sculpture, her first attempt at a life-size figure, Hosmer has depicted a young woman, naked but for the sheet that is draped across the lower half of her body. Hosmer created Oenone for a commission by her American benefactor, Wayman Crow. It would also serve as her artistic introduction to American audiences. Clearly anguished, Oenone rests on her knees, her body twisted to her right side where she looks down forlornly at the ground.
Rendered in the Neoclassical style, the work was inspired by a poem (of the same name) by Alfred Lord Tennyson (whose poetry was also a great influence of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood). It brings to life the tragic story of the nymph who was rejected by Paris when he fell in love with Helen of Troy. In Tennyson's poem (of 1832), Oenone, who is a marginal figure in Ovid's original poem, is reimagined as a tragic figure who sees Paris die after she stubbornly refuses to heal her erstwhile love (Paris) after he has been injured in battle. Double tragedy strikes when Oenone becomes so overwhelmed with grief, she takes her own life. In Hosmer's Oenone, she is either shown yearning for Paris's return, or contemplating suicide.
Historian Erin Sutherland writes, "Hosmer designed Oenone to balance classical decorum and pathos, erudition and accessibility, nudity and modesty. These dichotomies are inherent in the relationship between Neoclassical sculpture - with its traditional focus on idealized nude figures of heroic subjects - and American culture in the nineteenth century. While European, especially Italian, Academic art demanded mastery of the nude figure, the relatively conservative American public had reservations about viewing nude sculpture, and a female artist evoking the nude was even more problematic. Oenone satisfies the Academic viewer, accustomed to the undraped figures of ancient and modern European art, without offending a broader public with an unmitigated nude display. The traditionally reserved American audience had a growing interest in romantic, emotional literature and sculpture with a straightforward, sympathetic narrative. Hosmer creatively reconciled the refined, idealized classicism favored in Academic art with the emotionally engaging qualities that appealed to broad audiences of popular exhibitions".
Marble - Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis, Missouri
Inspired by the character in William Shakespeare's, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Puck shows a young boy, with wings and a head of curly hair, perched on a toadstool. In her own description of the sculpture, Hosmer said, "this little forest elf is the very personification of boyish self-will and mischief. With his right hand he grasps a beetle, and seems about to throw it; with his left he presses unconsciously a lizard. In all the lines of the face, in all the action of the body, gleams forth the mischievous self-will of being scarcely aware of the pain he causes, while rollicking in the consciousness of his tiny might".
While it did not feature a female figure (as most in her oeuvre did) this piece became her most reproduced work, with thirty castings of the sculpture created and sold. Indeed, Welsh suggests that the artist "created Puck out of financial necessity when her father's financial status took a downward turn and he could no longer support her in Rome. It was the sculpture that would ultimately bring her the most money and fame of all her works. It became an instant success with the aristocracy. Puck was purchased by the Prince of Wales in 1859, at the time still a youth in his teens".
Some members of the public had in fact criticized the dominance of strong female figures in Hosmer's work. According to Culkin, "the physical resemblance between Harriet and Puck reinforced the childish, playful and often boyish image the artist and her supporters crafted in order to blunt the threat she posed. [...] Sculpting a toddler, especially one who resembled her, also allowed Harriet to connect herself to the ideals of motherhood central to the conception of middle-class nineteenth-century womanhood, as much of women's cultural power stemmed from their ability to raise productive, virtuous citizens".
Marble - Collection of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
Beatrice Cenci is the artist's first sculpture in which she depicted a real figure from Italian history (and also the subject of a play by Percy Bysshe Shelly). Commissioned for the St. Louis Mercantile Library, the work featured a sixteen-year old girl who was executed in 1599 for planning, with her stepmother and brother, the murder of her father Count Francesco Cenci who had abused her.
Hosmer chose to depict Beatrice laying down on a prison bench, wrapped in a sheet looking pensive on the night before her execution. In her left hand she holds a rosary, as if the viewer has come upon her praying in her last minutes. Hosmer's sculpture was hugely impactful inasmuch as she had captured, not only the innocence of this young woman who had suffered terrible abuse at the hands of her own father, but also the cruel and unjust world in which she lives. Culkin describes how the sculpture, "provided the strongest and most aggressive image of a woman in Harriet's oeuvre to that point, and the threat and anger implicit in the artist's earlier work now became explicit".
The sculpture brought wide public attention to the artist. Having been exhibited in London at the Royal Academy ( the president of the Academy, artist Charles Eastlake, introduced the work as "really a beautiful work of art") Hosmer felt compelled to return to America and tour with the work where it was exhibited in Boston, New York City, Philadelphia and, finally, St. Louis. This sculpture also brought her to the attention of the women's rights leader, Susan B. Anthony, and marked the beginning of Hosmer's engagement with the woman's suffragette movement in America. Of Beatrice Cenci, Anthony wrote, "in the accomplishment of that grand work of the sculptor's chisel, making that cold marble breathe and pulsate, Harriet Hosmer has done more to ennoble and elevate woman than she possibly could have done by mere words, it matters not how Godlike".
Marble - St. Louis Mercantile Library, St. Louis, Missouri
Zenobia in Chains
A regal and powerful figure, Hosmer has depicted Zenobia, an ancient ruler of Palmyra. Coming into power after her husband's death, Zenobia's reign was cut short when the Romans conquered the region and took her captive in 270 A.D. Hosmer made the choice to show a regally dressed Zenobia holding the chains that bind her in her left hand close to her breast. This work, standing some seven feet high, created a scandal for Hosmer as, not long after it was exhibited at the London International Exposition at the Crystal Palace in 1862, a disgruntled artist spread a rumour via the press that she had not sculpted the work and that the creator of the work was one of her studio assistants. She countered with a press and legal campaign that would confirm her authorship.
The work was seen in America as making statements about both women's rights and anti-slavery. According to Culkin, "Zenobia's chains illustrate her [Hosmer's] understanding of the imagery's significance. Most descriptions portrayed the queen struggling under the weight of the manacles, needing help to keep them up. But Harriet's Zenobia carries her shackles lightly, with her massive wrists and arms barely dipping under the weight". According to the Saint Louis Art Museum, meanwhile, "[Hosmer] saw in Zenobia an embodiment of a woman's ability to move beyond the constraints placed on her". Zenobia's bearing stresses her strength rather than victimization. After London, Zenobia was shown in Boston, New York, and Chicago (where it attracted an estimated 30,000 viewers). The artist herself said of the work, "I honor every woman who has strength enough to step out of the beaten path when she feels that her walk lies in another".
Marble - Collection of Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, Missouri
The Sleeping Faun
In this life-sized sculpture, Hosmer has depicted the youthful mythological faun figure, in a state of slumber. His left leg is crossed over his right, and he is clothed in a simple tiger skin draped around his waist. The faun's head is slumped on his left shoulder. A salamander slithers over the base of the tree stump next to a bunch of grapes which symbolize the faun's drunkenness (his panpipes and staff have been discarded on the moss-covered forest floor). There is an element of humor to the work in the way a child satyr is caught in the act of tying the tail of the tiger skin cloth around the tree. The faun is oblivious to this mischief, and the shame about to befall him when he wakes and takes to his feet and will be unwittingly denuded.
This work, inspired by her friend Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel about the same mythological figure, is a rare example of a Hosmer sculpture that featured a male figure. it was certainly one of her most provocative. Culkin explains, "many of her earlier portrayals of dying or endangered women and small children had stayed within the arena associated with female authors. In deciding to sculpt not only male subjects, but a nude male, she now announced that no terrain was off limits to a female artist". Hosmer was, then, testing the boundaries of what females could achieve in the art world. This sculpture was in fact very well-received and became quite popular with several art collectors, including the Prince of Wales.
Historian Alice Rylance-Watson writes, "The Sleeping Faun was first shown at the Dublin Exhibition of 1865. The Times called it 'one of the finest' works to be seen there, intrigued that amongst all the sculpture 'contributed by the natives of lands in which the fine arts were naturalized thousands of years ago', the best was 'the production of an American'. [...] Despite Hosmer's firm intention to send the Sleeping Faun to America, it was bought almost immediately by the brewing magnate and founder of the Dublin Exhibition, Sir Benjamin Guinness, and kept at Guinness' former residence, Iveagh House, where it remains today". She adds, however, that "Two years after its celebrated debut in Ireland, Hosmer exhibited another Sleeping Faun at the 1867 International Exposition in Paris, where it received renewed praise. She was the only American woman to exhibit there, publicly refusing the Italian government's offer to pay for shipping and footing the bill herself so that she would be free to display the statue amongst American - not Roman - exhibits. Hosmer's thriving workshop went on to produce several copies of the Sleeping Faun in life-size and reduced two-thirds-life-size formats, and, in 1867, to carve the Waking Faun, a far less successful pendant now lost".
Marble - Collection of Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio
Biography of Harriet Hosmer
Childhood and Education
Hosmer was born in Watertown, Massachusetts, to loving parents, Hiram and Sarah Hosmer. Sadly, her childhood would be beset with tragedy and loss. By the time she was five years old, tuberculosis had claimed the life of her two younger brothers and her beloved mother. And despite her physician father encouraging Harriet and her older sister, Sarah, to play outside, and to stay strong and healthy through exercise, Harriet lost her sister to the same disease that had taken her brothers before Harriet had reached her teens.
With little else to occupy her time, the young Hatty (the childhood name by which she went) made the most of her semi-rural surroundings. She took naturally to hunting, fishing, horseback riding, and swimming and rowing, on the nearby Charles River. Historian Andrea Moore Kerr writes, "Dr. Hosmer became convinced that a vigorous, unconstrained outdoor life was indispensable to the health, and perhaps survival, of his remaining child. He furnished young Hatty with a pistol, a horse, a dog, and a small, silver-prowed gondola with velvet seats, and he encouraged her to explore nature. Hatty obliged, spending much of her time out of doors and filling her room with wild creatures she had killed and stuffed".
Hosmer was a mischief-maker and courted trouble from an early age. She found it difficult to integrate with others in her community and was expelled from three schools. However, as Kerr explains, "Hosmer's stubborn individuality and creative energy found an outlet in her 'secret studio,' a clay pit beneath a riverbank, where she modelled horses, dogs, sheep, women, and men, for hours on end". She also became a "crack shot" and well known "for her daredevil stunts on horseback and for her dexterity with bow and arrow. In an era of conformity in which young ladies were expected to spend their time in learning needlework, music, and the art of conversation, Hatty Hosmer was widely - and unfavorably - regarded as 'eccentric'".
Recognizing that his daughter probably needed more structure in her life, Hosmer's father sent her away to Mrs. Charles (Elizabeth) Sedgwick's School for Girls when she was sixteen. Located in Lenox, Massachusetts, Hosmer found herself in a progressive school that taught Latin, French and "hygiene", and fostered in the girls the idea of female independence. Elizabeth Sedgwick later referred to Hosmer as "the most difficult pupil to manage that I ever saw", but one she also "learned to love so well". Hosmer and her fellow classmates, including Cornelia Crow, the daughter of the future founder of Washington University, Wayman Crow, were encouraged to express themselves freely in all pursuits, and to learn from the attitudes of female role models such as the writer, Catherine Maria Sedgwick, and the actress, Fanny Kemble. It was at the School that Hosmer was likely fully awakened to her sexual preference for girls.
In 1849 Hosmer returned home from school ready to fully embrace her desire to become a professional sculptor. Author Kate Culkin states, "it was a startling decision, as there was not a strong tradition of American female sculptors to provide inspiration and unlike painting or writing, sculpting required physical strength and a public performance of labor, making it especially controversial for a woman". But as Kerr suggests, "her dreams may have been helped along by the [Boston] Atheneum's acquisition in 1848 of its first sculpture by a woman, a bust of Robert Rantoul done by Joanna Quiner, an older woman who lived in nearby Beverly, Massachusetts". She enrolled first in lessons with sculptor Peter Stephenson in Boston, but quickly realized she needed to study anatomy if she was to stand any chance of making her mark professionally in the field.
In autumn 1850, Hosmer traveled to St. Louis to visit her old school friend, Cornelia Crow. Taking up temporary residence at the Crow household, and, with the help of Cornelia's father (Wayman) she gained admission to the University of Missouri's Medical College where she studied anatomy under the tutelage of Dr. Joseph Nash. At college, Hosmer also gained attention for her unique fashion sense. As Culkin explains, "each morning, dressed in a brown bonnet that became her trademark while in St. Louis, she walked the two miles from Crow's house to the school on Eight and Gratiot, mud gathering at the hem of her dress. Reports circulated that she carried a pistol hidden in her skirts".
Despite being fully committed to her anatomy program, Hosmer was unable to suppress her adventurous spirit, and in 1851, undertook a steamboat trip down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. The voyage was notable for a stop at Lansing, Iowa. This famous episode in her biography is eloquently described here by historian Maria Popova:
"A steamboat is puffing up the Mississippi River, approaching a bluff towering above the shore, not far from where a steamboat pilot named Samuel Clemens would pick up his pen name Mark Twain a decade later. Bored and brazen, the young men aboard boast that they can reach the top of the bluff. One scoffs that if women weren't such poor climbers, the ladies in the party could join them. Harriet Hosmer thrusts her hands into her pockets and a mischievous smile lifts her chin as she proposes a foot race, wagering that she can reach the summit before any of the boys. A spectator to the scene would later remember her as 'a gay, romping, athletic schoolgirl.' The captain, amused, banks the boat, and off they all go. Harriet - Hatty to those who love her - slices through changing altitudinal zones of vegetation up the five hundred feet of elevation above the river, dashing through the virgin pine forest, charging through the bramble, and scrambling up the jagged rock to triumph first atop the summit, waving a victorious handkerchief. The captain, with amusement transmuted into astonishment, christens the bluff Mount Hosmer - a name it bears to this day".
Her anatomy studies complete, Hosmer returned to her hometown of Watertown in the summer of 1851. She became acquainted with the English actress, Fanny Kemble (who was at the time living and working in Massachusetts) who emboldened her to pursue a career as an artist. Hosmer took her first steps by setting up a studio in her backyard. Her first works included a medallion featuring the face of her professor Joseph Nash, and a bust of Napoleon gifted to her father. But the most notable early sculpture was of the mythological figure Hesper (1852) which would mark the beginnings of a recurring theme in Hosmer's works of iconic female figures. This work garnered her first opportunity for public attention and specifically that of author Lydia Maria Child. As Welsh explains, "Mrs. Child soon became one of Harriet's most powerful allies, using her connections and influence to publicize Harriet's work by writing a rave review of Hesper [and thereby launching] Harriet as a serious artist".
Around this time Hosmer befriended the tempestuous American stage actress, Charlotte Cushman. Cushman would have a lasting impact on the artist's life. While the two may (or may not) have engaged in a romantic relationship, they also bonded over their shared belief in spiritualism, something that would comfort Hosmer throughout her life. Cushman also promoted Hosmer's work within her influential circle of friends and invited her to stay with her at her home in Rome.
In November 1852, Hosmer set sail for Rome with her father. Still only twenty-two years of age, Hosmer found that her reputation had proceeded her, and she was welcomed into the Rome studio of the successful Neoclassical sculptor John Gibson. (Once her father realized she was settled in Rome, he returned to the US.) Kerr writes, "The friendship that sprang up between [Gibson and Hosmer] was deep and lasting. Hosmer worked diligently, doing engravings, books, casts, and copying Classical masterpieces. Gibson was pleased with her progress, admiring both her industry and her talent. A visit by the great German sculptor, Christian Rauch, drew praise for her artistic merit, a fact Gibson reported in a letter to Hiram Hosmer". The English sculptor's popularity attracted influential people to his studio and potential patrons were able to view Hosmer's work.
Hosmer was soon welcomed into an international network of famous artists and writers, including the artist Frederic Leighton; writers Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Thackeray, Hans Christian Andersen, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Henry James; and poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (her popular sculpture, The Clasped Hands of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1853), was dedicated to her new friends). The group would become known collectively as the "Spanish Steps Intellectuals" (after the famous Roman landmark).
Rosmer's growing reputation served as encouragement for other young female American artists to travel to Rome. The most successful of these was Edmonia Lewis, the first African-American and Native American sculptor to achieve national and international renown, and a woman who shared something of Hosmer's indominable spirit and self-confidence. Others in this group included Anne Whitney, Mary Lloyd, Vinnie Ream, and Emma Stebbins. Commenting on this influx of talent, Henry James dubbed the women "that strange sisterhood of American lady sculptors who at one time settled upon the seven hills [of Rome] in a white marmorean (resembling marble) flock".
In her domestic arrangements, meanwhile, Hosmer lived in Cushman's house along with the novelist Matilda Hays, and the journalist Sara Jane Clark (aka Grace Greenwood). They referred to themselves the "jolly bachelor women" but certain tensions would arise. Cushman and Hays had been in a clandestine "female marriage" when, in 1854, Hosmer "stole" Hays (albeit briefly) away from Cushman.
Despite her exciting new life, Hosmer's financial situation became precarious when her father withdrew his financial support claiming he was suffering his own cash-flow difficulties. Believing this to be a ruse to force her into returning home, their relationship suffered. However, sales from her sculptures allowed Hosmer to be financially independent and she was able to remain in Rome on her own terms. She produced highly successful works at this time. Her 1854 bust of the mythological figure Medusa, whose hair was replaced by an entanglement of live snakes, was not, in Hosmer's interpretation, the full monster (gorgon) she is doomed to become. As Welsh state, "[Hosmer's] portrayal was not the standard image of dread, but one of a beautiful woman, made horrific against her will". She produced her first life-size sculpture, Oenone (1854-55), in the same year, and her rendering of the figure Puck (1855) (a character from Shakespeare's, A Midsummer's Night Dream) sold thirty copies at a $1,000 each. Welsh comments, these sculptures "were considered extraordinary. Her work offered a passion and a depth of expression that was markedly unlike that of her contemporaries".
Hosmer had started to challenge the assumption that sculpting was physical work only fit for a man (especially through her life-size Oenone sculpture). She also played up to her image as a female non-conformist, and became well-known locally for dressing and behaving "inappropriately". As Welsh explains, "Harriet took to wearing a man-tailored shirt, a cravat, a skirt or large bloomer-like pants, and a purple smock. She wore her curly hair short, topped by a velvet sculptor's hat. Creating the impression of a young boy, she was allowed the freedom to ride and walk the streets of Rome unescorted and to eat alone in the cafes near her studio. Her midnight horse rides were the talk of the city, as riding - or even walking - alone in Rome was an uncommon thing for a woman to do".
Kerr explains how Hosmer's next work "brought her an unusual honor. She was commissioned in 1857 to do a sculpture for the tomb of Judith Falconnet in S. Andrea delle Fratte Church in Rome. This was the first Italian tomb sculpture ever done by an American, and one of the few before or since to have been created by a woman. Judged an artistic triumph, its completion was a major accomplishment for its diminutive 27-year-old creator". The commission confirmed her reputation, and in 1858 Hosmer was wealthy enough to rent her own apartment and studio. In her studio she would entertain prestigious visitors including the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII of England) in May of 1859. He was a great admirer of her work and purchased her sculpture, Puck, and later The Sleeping Faun, in 1870.
Hosmer's growing reputation abroad also saw her make several trips back to the United States to promote her work. In her native country her female subjects, such as Beatrice Cenci (1857) (a Roman noblewoman who was beheaded in 1599 for killing her own father), made her popular with the woman's suffrage movement. In 1860, she won the commission to create a statue of Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton. The resulting work, at fifteen-feet high was an imposing sculpture through which Hosmer further challenged preconceptions of the physical limitations of female sculptors. She had also found time to reconcile with her father who was suffering faltering health. He died in April 1862, with Hosmer the sole heir to his estate.
Hosmer's personal life was, however, rather less straightforward than the upward trajectory of her career thus far. While she made public statements about her desire to remain unmarried and celibate so as to focus fully on her art, she engaged in several passionate romantic relationships with influential women in her circle. One such relationship was with Lady Marian Alford, an English artist, art patron, and author who was known for her work with the Royal School of Art Needlework.
In 1864, Hosmer become embroiled in a professional scandal. While one of her works, Zenobia in Chains (1859), depicting the ancient queen of Palmyra, was being heralded in an exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London, an anonymously published article alleged that the piece had in fact been sculpted by one of her male assistants. Hosmer and her friends launched a campaign in the press and in the courts through a libel suit to clear her name. Eventually the identity of her accuser was revealed as the American sculptor, Joseph Mozier, who most believed had acted out of jealous spite. Hosmer dropped the libel suit once her name had been cleared, but reflecting on the incident, she rued, "a woman artist, who has been honoured by frequent commissions, is an object of particular odium. I am not particularly popular with any of my brethren".
The later years of Hosmer's career were a mixture of triumphs and disappointments. She was devastated to have lost the commission for a memorial sculpture for American president, Abraham Lincoln, but threw herself wholeheartedly into what would be her only sculpture to feature a living person, Maria Sophia, Queen of Naples. Hosmer become friends with the exiled Queen (and King) when they were staying in Rome (she would also visit them when they had moved on to Germany).
In 1868, Hosmer commenced her most important female romance with the widow, Lady Louisa Ashburton following their short vacation to Perugia. A renowned art collector and philanthropist, Lady Ashburton purchased several of Hosmer's works, helped to promote her work, and provided her with financial backing. Although their relationship was too volatile for the two to cohabit permanently, during their 25-year relationship Lady Ashburton (and her daughter) lived for periods with Hosmer in Rome, and Hosmer for a periods with Lady Ashburton in England.
With Neoclassicism falling out of fashion, Hosmer turned her focus more fully onto her interests in scientific inventions, as well as writing about Spiritualism. Her efforts, especially in the scientific field, brought her some acclaim with the first of her inventions being a new type of artificial marble which was promising enough to warrant a patent in both America and Italy. As Culkin explains, Hosmer's marble "allowed sculpture to move from a slow, painstaking skill into the efficient modern world, where items could be quickly mass-produced". Hosmer also developed a new wax method of sculpting which she felt allowed for more precision than traditional methods. It involved a process of modelling whereby the body of a statue was cast in plaster before an outer coating of wax was applied, thereby allowing the sculptor to fashion the finest possible details on the figure. She complemented her inventions with writing projects connected to her faith in Spiritualism. These included a play (written in 1875) titled: 1975: A Prophetic Drama.
In her twilight years Hosmer's devoted most of her time to her pet venture, the creation of a perpetual motion machine. Culkin explains how "Hosmer spent decades on this project, eventually proclaiming, 'I would rather have my fame rest upon the discovery of perpetual motion than upon my achievement in art'". Her plans for the contraption (for which she secured a patent) were wholly in keeping with her spiritual beliefs. It featured a tall glass spire (lit from the inside), capped with a sphere - symbolizing the sun. She had attached round riding cars - symbolizing the planets - to long metal arms and these were intended to rotate around the sphere giving passengers what Hosmer described as "the sensation of inhabiting other worlds than our own and of viewing our own planet, Earth, from a new point in space". Sadly for Hosmer her machine never passed the planning stage.
Hosmer settled in the United States permanently in the early 1890s, living in Chicago, Terre Haute, Indiana, and finally, her hometown of Watertown. Having already become acquainted with suffragist, Phebe Hanaford (in the 1860s) she had made a new friend in Susan B. Anthony, the American social reformer and women's rights activist who played a pivotal role in America's suffrage movement. Through that friendship, the Chicago suffragist group, the Queen Isabella Society, commissioned Hosmer to sculpt Isabella of Castille (the 15th century catholic monarch) for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. It was to be her last major work. But, as Kerr explains, the sculpture met with a rather inauspicious end: "An internecine squabble in Chicago as to whether Hosmer's statue should be placed in the Women's Pavilion, or whether it should take its place in the wider exhibition of American Art, resulted in its location outside the California pavilion - a decision that may have pleased no one. Queen Isabella was exhibited in plaster, and funds for a permanent model never materialized".
Hosmer's relationship with Lady Ashburton had by now cooled and advancing age meant she had also suffered the loss of several close friends and allies. Finally, in 1900 she found her way back home to Watertown where, now near penniless, she boarded with the family of a local jeweler (named Gray). While working on an unfinished memoir, in February of 1908, Hosmer contracted a cold which developed into a serious raspatory condition and she died soon after at the age of seventy-seven.
The Legacy of Harriet Hosmer
Hosmer left an indelible mark on the world of nineteenth century sculpture. A leading figure in Neoclassicism in her own right, history now sees her as an icon in the story of female artists. In her own time, it is believed that she was the model for Hilda in Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Marble Faun (1860), while other references to Hosmer, or characters inspired by her, appear in the writings of Louisa May Alcott and Kate Field. Latterly, she has emerged as a torchbearer in the histories of women's and LGBT groups. As author Barbara Kailean Welsh writes, "defying the limitations and gender expectations of her time, she became American's most famous woman sculptor of the 19th century, achieving international recognition and breaking down social and professional barriers to allow freedom for women in ways never before experienced".
Author Kate Culkin adds that some, "contemporary artists find her to be a muse. Two such inspired artists - Patricia Cronin and Jody Culkin - have [produced] work inspired by Harriet. Cronin [has produced a] series of black and white watercolors of [Hosmer's work, while] Culkin's work [has taken elements of Hosmer's] iconography, such as fauns and chains, and incorporate[d] them into multi-media projects and photographs". Andrea Moore Kerr concludes, "She died a pauper, but the artistic legacy she left was rich and enduring. Statues by Hosmer - each a monument to her courage and persistence - grace the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The National Gallery of Art, the London Academy, and other venues of distinction".
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Harriet Hosmer
- Blazing A Trail: The Unconventional Life of Harriet HosmerOur PickBy Barbara Kailean Welsh
- Harriet Hosmer: A Cultural BiographyOur PickBy Kate Culkin