Women’s History Month: Harriet Hosmer

Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908) is probably the most famous American artist you’ve never heard of, and I think that should change. I came to Harriet Hosmer by way of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The two women were expatratriates together in mid-nineteenth century Italy; both were extremely popular in their day and all but disappeared from popular memory a generation later. (Only Elizabeth Barrett’s marriage to Robert Browning seems to have kept her from disappearing from the British canon completely.)

I’m here to do my small part in returning Harriet Hosmer to her rightful place in American history. I can only hope that we finally live in an era where there are too many women participating in public life for a generation of female achievement to be buried again.

Historian Kate Culkin, the author of Harriet Hosmer: A Cultural Biography, believes “Harriet Hosmer’s life resonates with those of us in the 21st century as she was so interested in and adept at shaping her image for the public. She was an international celebrity, and she and her supporters took great care to ensure that Hosmer, an ambitious, single woman who had moved to Rome with no intention of returning to the United States, was depicted an patriotic and genteel.” 

Hosmer’s work was celebrated in the New York Times, drew thousands to galleries across the country, and opened the field of sculpture to women. (Yes, there were others. Who knew?) Like so many exceptional women of the nineteenth century, she benefited from an atypical childhood. Her father Hiram Hosmer, a prominent physician, may have already been determined to raise “hearty,” well-educated daughters before his wife’s death–she was the daughter of an educator herself–but after she left him with two small daughters he became almost obsessive about their health, emphasizing a robust physical regiment that took them far afield from the domestic sphere that was then considered a woman’s destiny.  Harriet went hunting and hiking around her Massachusetts home and swam and rowed on the Charles River, growing into a spirited prankster. Her father sent to her the Sedgewick School in the Berkshires, where she not only received a rigorous education but developed lifelong friendships that would serve her well both personally and professionally. Of course, then, as now, the two were not the least bit unrelated.

Hosmer’s father was crucial to the artist’s personal and professional success. Much of her fiestiness must have been inborn, but it is always difficult to imagine how such a personality might have developed without an encouraging influence. Hosmer also benefited from the patronage of Wayman Crow, one of the founders of Washington University and the father of one of her Sedgewick schoolmates. Equally important, however, was a network of prominent women that included Charlotte Cushman, the famous actress, and her partner Matilda Hays, the journalist and novelist.

Cushman was more than a professional role model for Harriet. Her relationship with Hays provided a model for her personal life as well. Cushman and Hays were understood to be more than friends among themselves and their contemporaries. (In a letter, Elizabeth Barrett Browning called it a “female marriage.”) Such relationships were common in the nineteenth century and were accepted in part because women were believed to be passionless, although historians of sexuality like Martha Vincinus point out that the refusal to give them a specific name, such as lesbian, “does not necessarily mean that our predecessors were not aware of what women could do in bed.” Culkin suggests Cushman likely allowed Harriet to “see as a real possibility a life that included professional success and a devoted, passionate relationship with another woman.” Hosmer had many relationships with women throughout her life, but she seems to have been most devoted to Louisa, Lady Ashburton. Harriet called Ashburton her “sposa” and risked her long friendship with Robert Browning when he and Ashburton had a public falling out. Both Ashburton and Hosmer may have been too volatile to live a life of quiet domesticity; but they did have many happy years together as a couple.

Zenobia in Chains

Harriet Hosmer was well-aware that her livelihood depending on maintaining an image that did not challenge the era’s gender ideology outright. Nonetheless, she managed to comment on the condition of women and enter into the debate about slavery through her work. Daphne and Medusa, both completed in 1854, challenged popular representations of the mythological figures, emphasizing the women’s humanity.

The subject of her most famous work, Zenobia in Chains, had been a popular figure in American and British literature for more than a century. Zenobia, a third century queen taken prisoner by the Roman emperor Aurelian and marched through the streets in chains, was used to comment on the potential–and fear of–female power.Unsurprisingly, whereas most depictions of Zenobia focus on her struggling in her bonds, Hosmer’s Zenobia is notable for her strength and self-possession at her most vulnerable moment.

Creating art will always involve a mysterious mix of talent, hard work, and good fortune. A woman pursuing a creative career shouldn’t have to face the added burden of thinking she is the first or the only–Elizabeth Barrett Browning likened it to having no mothers–when the truth for her as for women today is that there would be countless female artists in the history books right next to the men if our cultural memory had only cast its net a little wider. Harriet Hosmer was a great American artist. Just as she relied on a network of men and women to promote her, we should remember to do the same for our fellow women (and men) today.

About Jodi:
Jodi is a freelance writer and recovering academic with more enthusiasm for sports than athletic talent and a prodigious taste for the health food known as dark chocolate.

Comments

  1. Love this. Especially since I do love beautiful sculpture and I’m sad to say that I wasn’t familiar with Hosmer. Thanks for the introduction.

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