“Creativity takes courage,” the French artist Henri Matisse once declared. That certainly describes the experience of the American Neoclassical sculptor and feminist, Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908). Known as the first female professional sculptor, much of Hosmer’s work celebrated the strength and power of women and commented on gender inequality. Outgoing and free-spirited, Hosmer scandalized nineteenth-century society by often dressing in male attire, adopting manly behaviors, and wearing her hair short. She defiantly flouted convention, traveled without chaperones (a social requirement then for unmarried women), visited Native American tribes, went mountain climbing, rode horseback alone, and explored the Western frontier. Although she spent the majority of her professional life an expatriate in Rome, Hosmer became the best-known American woman sculptor of the nineteenth century, and the only one known to achieve financial independence through her work.
Harriet Hosmer's Early Years
Harriet Goodhue Hosmer was born on October 9, 1830, in Watertown, Massachusetts, some ten miles from Boston. Her mother, Sarah (Grant) Hosmer, older sister, and two younger brothers all died from tuberculosis before Hosmer was twelve. Determined to protect his surviving child’s health, Hosmer’s father, Dr. Hiram Hosmer (1798-1862), encouraged her to become an athlete and physically strong. He allowed her to pursue what were considered “masculine activities”–hiking, swimming, hunting, fishing, rowing, skating, and riding–pursuits unusual for women of her time. Hosmer’s interest in sculpting also began in childhood, when she would model dogs, horses, and other animals in a clay pit near her home. Her father, recognizing her early aptitude, taught her the basics of anatomy and nurtured her artistic ambition.
Her Early Art Education: The Sedgwick School
Hosmer’s father sent her to study at the Sedgwick School for Young Ladies, a progressive boarding school for girls in Lenox, Massachusetts, run by philanthropist Elizabeth Sedgwick. The school fostered female independence and provided Hosmer with mentors who recognized her talent as well and encouraged her to pursue sculpture professionally. At the Sedgwick School, Hosmer fortuitously met Cornelia Crow Carr (1833-1922), the daughter of Missouri state senator, philanthropist, and art collector Wayman Crow (1808-1885), who became a lifelong friend and Hosmer’s biographer in later years. Carr’s father also befriended Hosmer, becoming a loyal patron and benefactor until his death. As a token of gratitude, Hosmer created a plaster bust of Crow around 1866, which is her only known plaster work still in existence.
Where She Learned the Neoclassical Style
After graduating from the Sedgwick School in 1849, Hosmer settled in Boston where she briefly studied sculpture with the English-born Neoclassical sculptor Peter Stephenson (1823-ca.1861).
Excluded from studying anatomy in Boston because of her gender, Harriet’s father sent her to St. Louis to study at Missouri Medical College (now Washington University School of Medicine) in November 1850, at a time when less than one percent of American women went to college. Through the influence of Wayman Crow, Hosmer received additional private anatomical lessons from Dr. Joseph Nash McDowell of the McDowell Medical College (later the Medical College of St. Louis). At the age of 21, in 1851, Hosmer became the first woman to receive an anatomy certification from Missouri Medical College and was earning enough through commissions from portrait busts to return home to pursue her art, including a bust of Napoleon for Dr. Hosmer.
Inspired by the imagery in Lord Alfred Tennyson’s 1850 poem, In Memoriam, Hosmer carved her first original sculpture in the Neoclassical style in 1852, a white marble bust of Hesper, the personification of the Evening Star in Greek mythology. She modeled Hesper’s face after her friend, Cornelia Crow Carr. The life-size Hesper was Hosmer’s first major work in marble and reflected her interest in mythological subjects and Classical antiquity popular among Neoclassical artists.
Move to Rome and Apprenticeship with John Gibson
Disillusioned by her own country’s limited opportunities for women and prohibited from studying live models on account of her sex, Hosmer moved to Rome in 1852, then the center of the art world and of Neoclassical style. Determined to forge a professionally successful artistic identity, Hosmer persuaded Welsh sculptor John Gibson (1790-1866)–who had been one of the renowned Italian Neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova’s (1757-1822) pupils–to train her. Initially, she apprenticed with Gibson in his studio, where she was finally allowed to study from live models and copied Greco-Roman masterpieces to develop her skill.
Outgoing and free-spirited, Hosmer attracted friends easily. Many were members of the British nobility, expatriates like herself, who commissioned her to create portraits. One such work, the marble portrait medallion, Lady Constance Talbot (1857), depicts a British aristocrat with whom Hosmer often spent summer vacations in England. Sculpted in bas-relief, a form of sculpture in which figures are projected slightly outward from a flat surface, Lady Constance Talbot is the only known Hosmer medallion that is a bas-relief portrait of a woman. In addition to other less well-known expatriate female sculptors and artists residing in Rome, Hosmer also associated with the writers George Elliot, Nathaniel Hawthorne, George Sand, and William Thackeray, to name a few. Henry James was said to have called Hosmer the “life of every party.”
Another friendship was with the English expatriate poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who had eloped to Italy and lived in Florence. Shortly after meeting them in 1853, Hosmer suggested making a cast of their interlocked right hands as an expression of their love. Elizabeth consented, on the condition that Hosmer complete the process herself. The bronze Clasped Hands of Robert and Elizabeth Barret Browning was described by American author Nathaniel Hawthorne in his 1860 novel The Marble Faun as “symbolizing the individuality and heroic union of two high, poetic lives.” The bronze sculpture is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art while the original 1853 plaster cast is in the collection of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC.
The Hosmer Studio in Rome
Given her proximity to Rome, Hosmer was naturally drawn to Neoclassical style and the study of mythology. Working primarily in marble, much of Hosmer’s work of the period depicts strong female heroines drawn from Greek mythology and the Romantic literature of the time. Her preference for female subjects also reflected her concern for the secondary status of women in the nineteenth century.
Two of Hosmer’s initial works in Rome were the busts Daphne (1853, carved 1854) and Medusa (ca. 1854). In Greek mythology, Daphne was a nymph who had taken a vow of perpetual virginity and with whom the god Apollo became smitten. Desperate to escape Apollo’s advances, Daphne prayed to the gods for help and was transformed into a laurel tree before Apollo could overtake her. Rather than depicting the moment of Daphne’s escape, Hosmer modeled her as a modest maiden with downcast eyes, terminating the bust in laurel branches to signify her impending metamorphosis.
Similarly, Hosmer’s Medusa is a compassionate portrayal of a mortal woman before Zeus punishes her by turning her into a Gorgon. Medusa was famously depicted by male artists throughout Classical antiquity as a hideous, winged creature with a woman’s face and snakes for hair whose penetrating gaze could turn men to stone. Hosmer portrays Medusa as the beautiful woman she once was, her expression tortured, with intertwined snakes in her hair and below her breasts showing her transformation in progress.
Oenone First Life-Sized Sculpture
During the same period, Hosmer created Oenone (1854-1855), her first full-length, life-size sculpture commissioned by her American benefactor, Wayman Crow. Briefly mentioned by Roman poet Ovid in his record of the Trojan War in the Metamorphoses, Oenone is the doomed nymph Paris once loved but abandoned in pursuit of Helen of Troy. Inspired by Tennyson’s eponymous 1832 poem, Oenone also served as Hosmer’s artistic debut upon her arrival to the United States.
In the poem, Tennyson reimagines Oenone as a tragic, suffering victim who prophesied that Paris would be injured in the Trojan War and offered to heal him if he returned. Heartbroken however by his abandonment, Oenone refuses to heal Paris when he subsequently comes to her for help after being pierced by an arrow, thus causing him to bleed to death. Overcome by guilt and grief, Oenone kills herself. Prior to Tennyson’s poem, perspectives on the Trojan War from the female point of view were nearly unheard of. Hosmer’s Oenone is a solemn figure with head bowed in sorrow, her drapery modestly covering her nudity. The statue can be interpreted alternatively as Oenone patiently awaiting Paris’s return or contemplating suicide by the knife in her hand after allowing Paris to die.
Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra
Another such work is the portrait bust, Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, also from 1857, which Hosmer later developed as a life-size statue, Zenobia in Chains, ca. 1859.
Zenobia was an early queen who ruled what is now present-day Syria after the death of her husband, Odenathus, in 267 CE. She conquered Egypt and much of Asia Minor until her defeat by the Roman Emperor Aurelian in 272 CE. In the 1857 portrait bust Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, Hosmer chose to portray the queen at the moment of her capture, emphasizing Zenobia’s dignity. After capture by the emperor’s forces, Zenobia was marched in chains through the streets as part of Aurelian’s triumphal procession through Rome. For the full-figure Zenobia in Chains, Hosmer stresses Zenobia’s strength rather than victimization, her bearing regal despite the chains on her wrists. Hosmer saw in Zenobia the embodiment of a woman’s ability to move beyond the constraints of society
Harriet Hosmer said:
“I have tried to make her too proud to exhibit passion or emotion of any kind; not subdued, though a prisoner; but calm, grand, and strong within herself,”
.At about this time, the artist established her own studio with access to the white Italian Carrara and Seravezza marble quarries near Florence and Livorno and employed a team of more than twenty men there.
A Statue for Missouri
In 1862, the state of Missouri commissioned Hosmer to create a bronze sculpture commemorating former Missouri senator and anti-slavery advocate Thomas Hart Benton (1782-1858, served 1821-1851), the first public monument in the United States to be created by a woman. The statue was unveiled in Lafayette Park in St. Louis on May 27, 1868.
Becoming the Inventor
After the Civil War, the Neoclassical style fell out of fashion. By the 1870s, Hosmer began spending more of her time designing and constructing machinery, including a perpetual motion machine, and devising new processes for making sculpture, such as a method of converting ordinary limestone into artificial marble and a process of modeling in which the rough shape of a statue is first made in plaster on which a coating of wax is laid for working out the finer details. The synthetic marble Hosmer created is called Faut marble, French for imitation marble. Hosmer filed an application through the United States Patent Office on November 29, 1878. A year later, she was granted the patent for her improvements in the processes of making artificial marble on April 8, 1879 (US no. 214142) signed by her and two male witnesses. The original letter of the patent still exists and has been digitized by the United States Patent Office.
The perpetual motion machine, which operated on magnets, was never realized. It became a lifelong obsession for her from 1881 until the time of her death. Interestingly, the idea was derided by male physicists at the time because the concept of a flying machine violated the laws of thermodynamics. All that survives of the motion machine today are plans and models. We could not find any photos of a model of the machine.
She was also a pioneering supporter of abolition and women’s rights. She was friends with Susan B. Anthony and worked with the Chicago suffragist group, the Queen Isabella Association, formed to raise funds to finance a statue of Isabella Castille, Queen Isabella I of Spain, on the site of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The association commissioned Hosmer to sculpt Queen Isabella, the group’s namesake, to advance the cause of women’s suffrage and equal rights. The larger than life-size statue was exhibited again at the California Midwinter International Exposition a year later. It was Hosmer’s last known major work, but, unfortunately, the sculpture is now lost.