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Harriet Hosmer on Art and Ambition: The World’s First Successful Woman Sculptor on What It Takes to Be a Great Artist

Harriet Hosmer on Art and Ambition: The World’s First Successful Woman Sculptor on What It Takes to Be a Great Artist

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.

This is not Harriet Hosmer’s first triumph against expectation and convention, and it is far from her last.

Harriet Hosmer

At twenty-one, she has given herself the Mississippi River adventure as a small summer reward for having completed her anatomical studies — a centerpiece of her plan, as confident and single of purpose as her climbing wager, to become a sculptor. Packed in her trunk is a diploma from the medical school of St. Louis University. The year is 1851. An American university attended by men is not to officially begin admitting women for decades to come.

Harriet Hosmer (October 9, 1830–February 21, 1908) — one of the key figures in Figuring (public library), from which this essay is adapted — would go on to become the world’s first successful female sculptor and one of the most celebrated sculptors since ancient Greece, a neoalchemist who invents a process for transmuting cheap limestone into precious marble, a Pygmalion of her own destiny. She would break new ground for women, claim a place for American art in the Old World pantheon, model for artists a life of self-made prosperity and uncompromising creative vision, and furnish queer culture with a bold new vocabulary of being.

“Hosmer and Her Men” – a photograph Hosmer and her workmen, which she originally commissioned and titled with the intention of giving it away to friends as a joke.

The autumn after her Mississippi River adventure, as she was growing disillusioned with America’s rampant commercialism so dispiriting to artists and troubled by her culture’s limited opportunities for women, Hosmer met the expatriate Charlotte Cushman — the most prominent American actress of her time — who was visiting Boston as part of her farewell tour of the United States before settling permanently in Italy. Enchanted by Cushman’s tales of Rome, with its thriving creative world and its lively community of expats and queer artists, Hosmer made another radical decision that would shape her life: She would move to Rome to apprentice with one of the great masters.

Four weeks before her departure, she wrote in a letter to her early patron, father of her beloved — Cornelia Carr — and a father figure to Hatty herself:

You do not know how thoroughly dissatisfied I am with my present mode of life. I ought to be accomplishing thrice as much as now, and feel that I am soul-bound and thought-bound in this land of dollars and cents. I take it there is inspiration in the very atmosphere of Italy, and that there, one intuitively becomes artistic in thought. Could the government of this country and its glorious privileges be united with the splendors of art in Italy, that union would produce terrestrial perfection… My motto is going to be, “Live well, do well, and all will be well.”

Just before her twenty-second birthday, Harriet packed the diploma of her anatomical studies and two daguerreotypes of her first acclaimed statue, inspired by a Tennyson poem and modeled on Cornelia — a bust of Hesper, the evening star from Greek mythology — and sailed for Europe with her father, who was to help her settle in. Upon her arrival, Hosmer pursued what she considered “the dearest wish” of her heart: studying with the great English sculptor John Gibson — the unofficial king of Rome’s expatriate artist community, himself trained by the pioneering neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova.

Gibson had many applicants, but had accepted none when another sculptor approached him on Hosmer’s behalf and showed him the daguerreotype of Hesper. Gibson’s oft-cited response might be the ornament of early florid biographies, or it might be the simple fact of the occasion: “Send the young lady to me, — whatever I can teach her, she shall learn.” Whatever Gibson said, what he did remains indisputable: He took on Harriet as his sole student, gave her the room in his studio where Canova had previously worked, and immersed her in attentive mentorship, extolling to anyone who would listen her “vast degree of native genius.” He gave her books, casts, and engravings to study and assigned her sculptures to copy in perfecting her craft. Hosmer took to it all with indefatigable enthusiasm and work ethic. She wrote to Cornelia’s father:

One must have great patience in matters of art, it is so very difficult, and excellence in it is only the result of long time… Oh, if one knew but one-half the difficulties an artist has to surmount, the amount of different kinds of study necessary, before he can see the path even beginning to open before him, the public would be less ready to censure him for his shortcomings or slow advancement. The only remedy I know is patience with perseverance, and these are always sure, with a real honest love for art, to produce something.

Rome became Hosmer’s sandbox of self-invention. It offered the strange alchemy by which we transmute our former selves — barely recognizable in their different bodies and different minds holding different ideas, values, and beliefs — into the fleeting constellation of what we so confidently claim as a solid self at this particular moment. The chain of umbilical cords by which one self gives birth to another again and again at once fetters us to our past and liberates us into a novel future. That chain is invisible, except for the rare moments when we feel it tug on the confident present self with its formidable weight. With an eye to her teenage days near Boston, Hosmer wrote to Cornelia:

My life is so unlike what it was then. I think and feel so differently it seems to me I must have left my former body and found another… These changes make me feel twenty years older.

Meanwhile, her perseverance and devotion paid off. After a year of study with Gibson, she was ready to create her first original sculpture since Hesper — another bust of a woman drawn from ancient Greek mythology, loaded with meaning and layered with questions about women’s status, rights, and fate in a male-dominated society: Medusa.

According to the version of the Greek legend Hosmer chose, the beautiful Medusa was raped by the sea god Poseidon — a crime committed in the temple of Athena, for which the goddess of wisdom decided to dispense punishment. But in a subtle reminder that the writers of these myths were men, the jealous Athena, rather than punishing the rapist, punished Medusa for having attracted Poseidon’s attention — she transformed the lovely maiden into a gorgon so hideous that men turned to stone at the sight of her. In an era when statutory rape was almost impossible to prosecute in Hosmer’s homeland, where wives had no legal right to refuse sex to their husbands and legions of white men were raping black women with complete legal and societal impunity, her depiction of Medusa was a bold and prescient choice commenting on the gruesome deficiencies of a justice system that had failed to protect women since antiquity and a society in which victim-blaming has endured to the present day.

Harriet Hosmer: Medusa (Minneapolis Institute of Art)

Medusa was a popular subject with the great masters, but she was customarily rendered in her monstrous form following Athena’s punishment. Hosmer chose to capture the moment of transfiguration — her bust, completed in 1854, depicts a proud and beautiful woman just as her hair is beginning to turn into serpents. She cast Medusa’s hair from a real snake captured in the wilderness outside Rome. But she didn’t have the heart to kill the serpent, so she anesthetized it with chloroform, made a cast by keeping it in plaster for three and a half hours, then released it back into the wild. Hosmer’s Medusa — her choice of subject matter, her atypical depiction, her treatment of the live serpent — embodies the complex relationship between agency, victimhood, and mercy made tangible.

The same year, Hosmer created another original sculpture animated by a similar subject: a bust of Daphne, the beautiful nymph who ran from Apollo’s lust and, in the final moment before being overtaken, was transformed into a laurel tree by her merciful father, the river god Ladon. Here was another woman who had to relinquish her womanhood and her very humanity in order to avoid the assailing ardor of unwanted male attention. In Hosmer’s marmoreal rendering, a Hesper-like Daphne glances downward with a subtle smile as a laurel branch curves beneath her bare breasts.

Harriet Hosmer’s bust of Daphne (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Her sculptures garnered acclaim unprecedented not only for someone so young and so female, but for any artist breaking new ground. Newspapers hailed her busts of Daphne and Medusa as “convincing proof of her genius and success.” The famed English actress Fanny Kemble wrote of Hosmer, whom she had befriended back in Massachusetts:

I think she will distinguish herself greatly, for she not only is gifted with an unusual artistic capacity, but she has energy, perseverance, and industry; attributes often wanting where genius exists…

Meanwhile, Gibson took care to vaccinate her against the inevitable dark side of success — the petty jealousies that always follow genius like a swarm of flies trailing behind an elephant. He gave the young artist advice she encoded into the marrow of her being:

There are many obstacles in the path to fame, but to surmount them, to produce fine works, we must have tranquillity of mind. Those who are envious cannot be happy, nor can the vicious. We must have internal peace, to give birth to beautiful ideas. I am glad that you feel impatient to begin your statue; that impatience is love, the love of the art. The more you feel it, the more is the soul inflamed with ambition, the ambition of excellence.

The statue she could hardly wait to begin would become her great masterpiece: Zenobia in Chains — an homage to another woman who has taken charge of her own destiny, and another poignant meditation on the relationship between victimhood and agency.

Zenobia was the third-century queen of the land that is now Syria — one of antiquity’s two famous female heads of state, far more politically ferocious than Cleopatra and ultimately far more tragic. Many centuries later, Margaret Fuller — who spent her own final and most fertile years in Rome — would write in her epoch-making book Woman in the Nineteenth Century, perhaps with Zenobia in mind:

The presence of a woman on the throne always makes its mark. Life is lived before the eyes of men, by which their imaginations are stimulated as to the possibilities of Woman.

An erudite and intellectually ambitious woman who valued conquests of the mind as much as those of land, Zenobia cultivated a welcome atmosphere for scholars in her court and espoused equality within her dominion, where people of various ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds mingled. In the year 270, Zenobia led an invasion of the Roman Empire. She conquered the majority of the Roman East and annexed Egypt. Over the next two years, she continued extending her empire, which nonetheless remained under the nominal jurisdiction of the Roman Emperor, until she eventually declared complete secession. In the ensuing revolution, the Roman army prevailed after a bloody fight, capturing Zenobia and exiling her to Rome. Playing with the line between homage and refutation, Hosmer’s Zenobia presented an aesthetic parallel and a conceptual mirror image to the celebrated sculptor Hiram Powers’s The Greek Slave, which depicted a feeble young nude about to be sold at auction. Powers’s choice to eroticize and glamorize subjugation is particularly perplexing, given that the sculptor himself was part Native American. His blockbuster statue was not without critics. Chief among them were Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose poem “The Greek Slave” offered a counterpoint to Powers’s depiction of resigned passivity in the face of oppression, and John Tenniel, the original illustrator of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, who published a cartoon in the famed satirical magazine Puck, depicting a black woman on an auction block in the posture of the Powers statue under the caption “The Virginian Slave, Intended as a Companion to Powers’ Greek Slave.”

Unlike Powers’s helpless nude, Hosmer’s larger-than-life Zenobia — “of a size with which I might be compared as a mouse to a camel,” she wrote to Cornelia — depicts the captive queen, still in her regal robe and crown, as she is being paraded in the streets of Rome. One strong hand is holding up the chain hanging between her shackled wrists, as though willfully refraining from snapping the link and breaking free. Gazing down from her seven-foot stature, Zenobia’s intelligent face radiates complete composure — an unassailable dignity despite defeat, bolstered by the knowledge that she has fought for her values to the hilt.

Harriet Hosmer’s Zenobia in Chains. Photograph by Skip Moss.

Hosmer deliberately subverted other popular depictions of the ancient queen. Five years earlier, just after his intense romance with Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne had woven into his novel The Blithedale Romance a character named Zenobia — an opinionated woman of brilliance and beauty, bedeviled by excessive pride, modeled on Margaret Fuller — a thankless portrayal of the woman who had launched his literary career with her own generous pen. His Zenobia eventually elects her own ruin and drowns herself. A more historically literal interpretation had appeared in another novel published when Hosmer was a child, the year her mother died. In it, the queen is eventually stripped of dignity and reduced to “Zenobia in ruins.”

Hosmer’s Zenobia, while in chains, was a woman of inextinguishable strength and moral triumph. A widely circulated praiseful review of the statue quoted Hosmer: “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.” She had worked on her masterpiece for nearly three years. (“Nobody asks you how long you have been on a thing but fools,” Gibson had told her at the outset of her career, “and you don’t care what they think.”) But the success of the statue became a focal point of the professional jealousies that had been orbiting Hosmer’s rising star. An anonymous article in a London paper alleged that Zenobia was created by Harriet’s workmen and not by the sculptor herself. Another article insinuated that Gibson had sculpted it and let his pupil claim the credit. Hosmer didn’t hesitate to sue for libel. Corrections were printed. In the course of the lawsuit, it was revealed that the author of the malicious rumor was Joseph Mozier — another expatriate American sculptor, who had long harbored jealousy for the far more successful Hosmer and who had been particularly riled by her recent winning of the commission for a major monument to Thomas Hart Benton, the nation’s longest-serving senator.

“Harriet Hosmer at Work,” with her statue of Thomas Hart Benton.

Later, Hosmer — a prolific lifelong writer of satirical verses — would make light of the incident in a lengthy poem titled “The Doleful Ditty of the Roman Caffe Greco,” which includes these lines spoken by one of the pompous male patrons of the famed artists’ café:

’Tis time, my friends, we cogitate,
And make some desperate stand.
Or else our sister artists here
Will drive us from the land.

It does seem hard that we at last
Have rivals in the clay,
When for so many happy years
We had it all our way.

This dignity of self-possession against the status quo would always animate Hosmer’s work and the personal values from which she mined her marble. During one of her visits to America, campaigning for a memorial of Abraham Lincoln, she went to hear a sermon by Phebe Ann Hanaford — one of the nation’s first women ministers. Moved, Hosmer wrote to Hanaford, whom she saw as a spiritual artist:

I honor every woman who has strength enough to step out of the beaten path when she feels her walk lies in another; strength enough to stand up to be laughed at, if necessary. That is the bitter pill we must all swallow in the beginning, but I regard these pills as tonics quite essential to one’s mental salvation.

Harriet Hosmer, studio portrait.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of the many famous visitors who flocked to her studio in Rome, captured Hosmer’s bold deviation from the beaten path and her defiant devotion to simply being herself:

She was very peculiar, but she seemed to be her actual self, and nothing affected or made up; so that, for my part, I gave her full leave to wear what may suit her best, and to behave as her inner woman prompts.

More of Hosmer’s unusual and trailblazing life — her visionary art, her beautiful and countercultural loves, her courage to be her own self in a culture that continually tyrannized with a single correct way of being and loving — unfolds in Figuring. Every woman artist born in the epochs since, every creative person who has carved out a purposeful life amid a culture where they are in any way “other,” every queer person who is comfortably out or benefits from living in a culture where there is hardly anything left to be “in,” is indebted to Harriet Hosmer — the bedrock of our being is marbled with the ancestral genes of hers.

Published February 27, 2019




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