Hosmer, Harriet (1830–1908)
Hosmer, Harriet (1830–1908)
First American woman to achieve an international reputation as a neoclassical sculptor. Name variations: "Hatty." Born Harriet Goodhue Hosmer on October 9, 1830, in Watertown, Massachusetts, a city on the Charles River in the heart of "literary" New England; died on February 21, 1908, at the home of friends in Watertown; daughter of Hiram Hosmer (a physician), and Sarah (Grant) Hosmer; only one of their four children to survive to adulthood; educated at Mrs. Charles Sedgwick's School for Girls in Lenox, Massachusetts; studied sculpture with Paul Stephenson in Boston; denied admittance to Boston Medical School's anatomy course; moved to St. Louis, studied anatomy at Missouri Medical College.
Created first major sculpture, Hesper, the Evening Star (1852); traveled to Rome (November 1852); studied with renowned British sculptor John Gibson; established reputation in Rome (1853) with marble busts of Daphne and Medusa, followed by the full-length Oenone (1855); completed two popular sculptures, Puck and Will o' the Wisp, followed by the critically acclaimed Beatrice Cenci (1857); her seven-foot marble, Zenobia (1859) brought international praise; rendered last full-scale sculpture Queen Isabella for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893).
Daphne (Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Wing, 1853); Medusa (Detroit Institute of Art, 1854); The Clasped Hands of the Brownings (Schlesinger Library at Harvard, Armstrong-Browning Library, and Baylor University, 1853); Waking Faun and Sleeping Faun (Forbes Collection, New York, 1854); Oenone (St. Louis Mercantile Library, and Steinberg Gallery, Washington College, 1855); Puck (National Museum of American Art, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, and Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, 1856); Will o' the Wisp (Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, 1856); Beatrice Cenci (St. Louis Mercantile Library, 1857); Tomb of Judith Falconnet (Max-Planck Institut, Rome, 1857–58); Zenobia (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, 1859); Thomas Hart Benton (Lafayette Park, St. Louis, 1868).
As a child, Harriet Hosmer enjoyed a life of remarkable freedom. A family friend was heard to remark that the young Harriet, known then and throughout her life to friends and family as Hatty, was the lamentable product of "too much spoiling." The indulgence of her doting father, a physician in Watertown, Massachusetts, was understandable; before Hatty's fifth birthday, Hiram Hosmer had lost first his wife, then Hatty's two infant brothers, and finally her sister Helen—all to tuberculosis. 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.
By all accounts, Hosmer was something of a wild creature herself, and neighborhood families were loath to have their children play with the roughneck whose misdeeds and pranks were legendary in the small community on the banks of the Charles River. Hosmer would later recall (not without some pride), that by the time she reached adolescence she had been expelled from three different schools. In her early years, Hosmer's stubborn individuality and creative energy found an outlet in her secret "studio," a clay pit beneath a riverbank, where she modeled horses, dogs, sheep, women, and men, for hours on end. A playmate later recalled coming across Hatty one day, armed with her ivory-handled pistol, proud of the fact that she had just shot a robin to use as a model for one of her clay sculptures. A crack shot, young Hosmer was known as well 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."
After a pair of particularly outrageous escapades in her 16th year—one in which she was caught uncoupling the passenger cars from a train's engine, and the other in which she inserted a death notice in the local newspapers for a verymuch-alive neighbor—Dr. Hosmer made arrangements to send Hatty to Mrs. Charles Sedgwick's School for Girls at Lenox, Massachusetts.
A progressive educator, Elizabeth Sedgwick succeeded in intellectually and artistically challenging her young charges; although the ebullient Hatty Hosmer was scarcely subdued, she did settle in and enjoy her years at the school. Hosmer developed a lifelong fondness for Sedgwick, a feeling that was reciprocated. Though Elizabeth Sedgwick pronounced Hatty "the most difficult pupil to manage that I ever saw," she added that she had never seen one "in whom I took so deep an interest and whom I learned to love so well." Hosmer's high spirits were infectious, and her classmates remembered her as "the life of the house."
Among other subjects at Mrs. Sedgwick's, Hatty studied Latin, Greek, French, and hygiene. There too she became acquainted with some of the leading figures of the age. Frequent visitors at "The Hive," the name given to the Sedgwick residence, included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Sumner, Nathaniel Hawthorne, actress Fanny Kemble , and Catharine Sedgwick , the wellknown novelist and sister of Charles Sedgwick. It was there too that Hatty formed the friendship with Cornelia Crow (Carr) that would prove the most durable and consequential legacy of her years at Mrs. Sedgwick's School.
Wayland Crow, Cornelia's father, was a wealthy and influential St. Louis businessman who developed a special bond with Hatty Hosmer. He was a self-made man who perhaps saw in her exuberance and ambition a spirit kindred to his own. He would prove a loyal and lifelong benefactor, providing Hosmer with the support and encouragement she often lacked from her own father. Although Hiram Hosmer supported his daughter's ambition to be a sculptor, he was a lonely widower who would have preferred to keep his only child closer to home, a task that would prove impossible.
Leaving Mrs. Sedgwick's in 1849, Hosmer returned to her father's home determined to become a "real" sculptor. Rejecting the acceptable outlets for a woman's artistic inclinations—the genteel art of cameo carving, or the painting of delicate watercolors—Hosmer instead set her sights on carving marble and casting bronze. She envisioned her own monumental works exhibited alongside the ranks of those she had long admired in Boston's Atheneum. In her ambition, she displayed the characteristic indifference to custom that had marked her early years. Her dreams may have been helped along by the 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.
With her father's help, Hosmer began her studies in Boston with Peter Stephenson, an English-born sculptor and highly regarded teacher. Hosmer took to her studies with the same exuberant energy that had characterized her childhood projects, and soon she had completed a portrait bust of a child as well as a wax sculpture of the head of Byron. Stymied by her lack of knowledge of human anatomy, a fundamental field of study for would-be sculptors, Hatty persuaded her father to try to use his influence in the Boston Medical Society to procure her a place in an anatomy class. Dr. Hosmer's inquiries met with shock and disapproval on the part of his colleagues. A disappointed and frustrated Hatty left soon afterwards to visit her friend Cornelia Crow in St. Louis.
Wayland Crow succeeded where Hiram Hosmer had failed; he convinced a friend, Joseph Nash McDowell, director of the Missouri Medical College, to allow Hatty to matriculate in order to study anatomy. This she did, attending every lecture in a plain brown bonnet—intended perhaps to preserve her modesty—that would become her trademark in St. Louis. At the end of her course of study, Hosmer traveled alone down the Mississippi on a steamboat, enjoying a series of hair-raising adventures prior to her return to Watertown. Once back in New England, Hosmer returned to her work. Wielding a four-and-a-half-pound lead sculptor's mallet, she put in ten hours a day in the studio her father had built for her, working on a marble bust of Hesper, the Evening Star.
It was while she was working in Watertown and studying in Boston that Hatty met the famous author and abolitionist, Lydia Maria Child . Child brought Hesper to the notice of the public, writing lyrically of the grace and charm of the statue. That summer, Hosmer also met the famous actress Charlotte Cushman , who was immediately drawn to the talented young sculptor. Cushman lived in Rome when she was not fulfilling speaking and acting engagements, and she encouraged Hatty to come to Rome to study with the greatest male sculptors of the age. Hatty needed no convincing, but Dr. Hosmer only gradually acceded to Cushman's ambitious plans for his daughter.
In the autumn of 1852, Hatty and her father sailed for Rome. In Hosmer's portmanteau were her diploma in anatomy from the Missouri Medical College and two daguerreotypes of Hesper. Arriving in Rome, she and her father were able to gain an audience with John Gibson, widely regarded as England's foremost sculptor. Although Gibson did not customarily take students, after viewing the pictures of Hesper, he agreed to take Hatty on. She was elated, writing home to describe the thrill of being assigned to work in the studio where the great sculptor Canova had worked some 50 years before.
The friendship that sprang up between teacher and pupil was deep and lasting. Hosmer worked diligently, doing engravings, books, casts, and copying the masterpieces of classical sculpture. 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.
After Hosmer had been in Rome for six months, she received her first commission; Wayland Crow agreed to purchase her first statue. She began work on Daphne, which she described in detail in a letter to him. Altogether absorbed in her art, the young artist wrote her friend Cornelia on April 22, 1853:
Don't ask me if I was happy before, don't ask me if I am happy now, but ask me if my constant state of mind is felicitous, beatific, and I will reply, "yes." It never entered into my head that anybody could be so content on this earth, as I am here. I wouldn't live anywhere else but Rome…. America is agrand and glorious country in some respects, but this is a better place for an artist.
Hatty's exuberance was no doubt enhanced by the pleasure she took in turning over to a team of Italian workers the heavy task of executing the actual final marble statue itself. Whereas in Watertown, she had been exhausted by having to work the marble herself, the custom among neoclassical sculptors in Rome was to produce first a concetto, the concept, followed by a rough model, the bozzetto, generally a clay model. The studio workers then assisted the sculptor in building a skeleton to support a fullsize clay model, the modello grande. This became the working model for the final marble statue itself, which was executed by skilled artisans using a series of frames and plumb lines to duplicate exactly the artist's creation.
Outside the studio, Hatty had become part of an expatriate artists' colony that included some of the most eminent figures of the age. Along with sculptors Thomas Crawford, Frederic Leighton, and Randolph Story, Hosmer was soon spending "salon" evenings with Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning , Luther Terry, Fanny Kemble and her sister Adelaide Kemble Sartoris, the novelist William Thackeray, and Charlotte Cushman, who continued to take a lively interest in Hosmer's career.
In 1853, Hosmer completed Daphne, its delicately curved lines and neoclassical form demonstrating her increasing mastery of form. This was followed by Medusa, in which the subject's snake-like locks were depicted as a sort of tiara. In order to render the snakes more faithfully, Hosmer caught and chloroformed a live snake (later set free). Gibson was very pleased with the Medusa, writing to Hatty's father that her ability to portray the roundness of flesh was "unsurpassed." Indeed, Hosmer's Medusa was a powerful rendering of a familiar subject—one in which the coldness of marble and the strict adherence to classical form was softened by the warmth and humanity of the facial expression.
Hosmer essayed her first full-length sculpture in 1855, with Oenone, the wife deserted by Paris when he fell in love with Helen of Troy. Oenone is depicted sitting on the ground gazing downward, the picture of dejection, the curve of back and arm testifying to Hosmer's increasing skill as a sculptor. While her first subjects had all been women, for her next subject Hosmer turned to Puck, the beloved Shakespearean sprite, perhaps sensing the commercial appeal of a lighter and more playful subject. Puck, "a laugh in marble" in the words of one critic, was a great success; Hosmer earned almost $30,000 by selling marble copies. The Prince of Wales purchased a copy of Puck, bringing Hosmer no small measure of public attention. Will o' the Wisp, a companion piece to Puck, was completed soon after, and while not as popular as Puck, it nonetheless further enhanced Hosmer's reputation.
On commission from an anonymous friend of Wayland Crow's, Hosmer created Beatrice Cenci in 1857, a figure from Italian history that had more recently been the subject of a play by Shelley. In the play, Cenci arranged the murder of her brutal and incestuous father. Hosmer chose to portray Cenci sleeping on her prison couch, awaiting execution. Beatrice Cenci proved the most critically successful of all Hosmer's efforts to date. It traveled to England, where it was exhibited at the Royal Academy and treated to an evening illumination, a dramatic show intended to heighten the statue's effect. There the artist Charles Eastlake, president of the academy, declared it "really a beautiful work of art." From London, Beatrice Cenci traveled to Boston, where it drew visitors from throughout New England. It went on to triumph in New York and Philadelphia before reaching its final destination, St. Louis.
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. Adjudged an artistic triumph, its completion was a major accomplishment for its diminutive 27-year-old creator.
By 1859, Hosmer had secured enough commissions and learned enough from John Gibson to establish her own studio. It was in that year too that she was honored with membership in the Accademia de' Quiriti, an accomplishment that she hoped would prove "bitter" to those artistic friends who "laughed at the idea of a woman becoming an artist at all."
[B]ut what a country mine is for women! Here every woman has a chance, if she is bold enough to avail herself of it…. I honor every woman who has strength enough to stand up and be laughed at, if necessary. That is a bitter pill we must all swallow in the beginning, but I regard these pills as tonics quite essential.
—Harriet G. Hosmer, July 29, 1869
Hosmer's next major project was larger than any work to date. Zenobia depicted the legendary Palmyran queen who was brought in chains and paraded through the streets of Rome. Nathaniel Hawthorne described the partially finished clay model at Hosmer's Rome studio, writing afterwards of having "never been more impressed by a piece of modern sculpture." Zenobia would be displayed majestically against a Pompeian red background at the London International Exposition of 1862. Subsequently, it went on to be displayed in Boston, New York, and Chicago. In Boston, it attracted over 30,000 viewers and was praised in print by Lydia Maria Child and by poet John Greenleaf Whittier.
Although Hosmer sold Zenobia for $15,000 and received a number of orders for copies, its critical reception was mixed. Alternating with high praise were intimations of the beginnings of a move away from the aesthetics of strict neoclassicism. In addition, Hosmer was enraged by public charges that her statues were not her own
creations, but were the executions of Italian artisans. She returned to Rome determined to file a libel suit against the publications reporting this story. She also published a lengthy article in the December 1864 Atlantic Monthly describing the creative process in which she drew a sharp distinction between the artist who conceived and modelled the work in clay and those who simply carried out the artist's commands in marble. Hosmer insisted upon, and received, printed apologies from the journals that had carried the charge that her statues were not her own.
At the Dublin Exhibition in 1865, Hosmer's most recent creation, The Sleeping Faun, became one of the most celebrated and admired works, selling on opening day for £1,000, a figure that exceeded the $15,000 she had received for Zenobia. Still, the controversy over the originality of her compositions had not died down altogether.
Upon her return to Rome, Hosmer supervised the completion of her new studio. The death of her father in 1862 had left her with an independent income, and the professional success she was enjoying allowed her to build a large and handsome establishment. Flowers and birds filled the interior courtyard, and Hosmer's work studios were large and sunny. In this studio, over the next five years, Hosmer would turn out a steady procession of sought-after works, many of these on commission to her wealthy friends, which now included a number of titled Englishwomen.
In 1868, Hosmer completed a commission for the state of Missouri, a ten-foot statue of Senator Thomas Hart Benton. Cast in bronze in Munich and shipped to St. Louis, its dedication was cause for a city-wide celebration. The public acclaim, though not the last that Hosmer would receive, represented an apogee of sorts. Following the Civil War, neoclassicism had come to be replaced by a new realism. Hosmer was unwilling to adapt to the new aesthetics, and her bids to win commissions for a Lincoln Memorial and for a Freedman's Memorial both met with failure.
From the late 1860s on, Hosmer spent increasing amounts of time away from her studio, often traveling from one country home to another in England and France, visiting her titled and literary friends. She was inadvertently caught up in the civil insurrections that led to fighting in the streets of Rome in 1870, and the subsequent political unrest cast a pall for Hosmer on the lustre of her beloved city. Though she continued to spend part of each year there for some years afterward, and although she was but 40 years old, the period of her greatest productivity as an artist was over.
Hosmer's last important project was a commission from a woman suffragists' organization to do a full-sized Queen Isabella I for the World's Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893. Among women's groups, Hosmer had achieved legendary status as a pioneer woman artist; in addition, following a meeting in the late 1860s with suffragist Phebe Hanaford , Hosmer had become a more outspoken advocate of women's rights. 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.
Unwilling in later years to conform to the new aesthetic norms for sculpture—works she likened to "bronze photographs"—Hosmer turned to mechanical inventions. She tinkered for years with a magnetic perpetual motion machine and tried as well to develop a substance that could be cast as plaster but that had the artistic properties of marble.
Hosmer returned to Watertown in 1900, boarding with the family of a jeweler named Gray. It was while living with the Grays that she developed a fatal respiratory ailment, dying on February 21, 1908. Her old friend Cornelia Crow Carr took charge of Hosmer's estate. Harriet Hosmer 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.
Carr, Cornelia, ed. Harriet Hosmer: Letters and Memories. NY: Moffat, Yard, 1912.
Sherwood, Dolly. Harriet Hosmer: American Sculptor; 1830–1908. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1991.
Lee, Hannah. Familiar Sketches of Sculpture and Sculptors. Vol. 2. Boston: Crosby, Nichols, 1854.
Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer. American Women Sculptors: A History of Women Working in Three Dimensions. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1990.
Ross, Jane M. A Woman Bold Enough. Washington Playwrights Forum, 1995.
A Visit with the Playwright: The Life of Sculptor Harriet Hosmer. Old Hat Productions, Bethesda, Maryland, 1996.
Andrea Moore Kerr , Ph.D., author of Lucy Stone: Speaking Out for Equality (Rutgers, 1992) and women's historian and independent scholar living in Washington, D.C.