Whitney, Anne (1821–1915)

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Whitney, Anne (1821–1915)

American sculptor, abolitionist and feminist—a major contributor to the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, with four busts sculpted for exhibition in its famed Woman's Building—whose work is displayed in the U.S. Capitol . Born on September 2, 1821, in Watertown, Massachusetts; died on January 23, 1915, in Boston, Massachusetts; daughter of Nathaniel R. Whitney II (a clerk in Middlesex courts and a gentleman farmer) and Sarah (Stone) Whitney; instructed at home except for her 13th year spent at Mrs. Samuel Little's Select School for Young Ladies in Bucksport, Maine; studied anatomy in a Brooklyn hospital, New York, and drawing at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 1859–60; received private instruction from sculptor William Rimmer, 1862–64; made several trips to Europe where she studied sculpture in France and learned bronze casting in Munich, Germany, between 1867 and 1871; never married; no children.

Taught school in Salem, Massachusetts (1847–49); lived in New York (1859–61); exhibited marble bust of Laura Brown at the National Academy of Design (1860); took a studio in Boston (1862); commissioned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to create a statue of Samuel Adams for the U.S. Capitol (1873); won (then lost) competition for monument of Senator Charles Sumner (1875); produced three sculptures for the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition (1876); bought a house in Boston (1876); bought a farm in Shelburne, New Hampshire (1882); taught at Wellesley College (1885); moved into a penthouse duplex in Boston (1893), and exhibited busts of four prominent American women at the Woman's Building at the Columbian Exposition; included in Who's Who in America (1899).

Major works:

Bust of Laura Brown (National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1859); Lady Godiva (private collection, Dallas, 1861); Samuel Adams (marble, United States Capitol, Statuary Hall); Le Modèle (bronze, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1875); Senator Charles Sumner (plaster, Watertown Free Public Library, 1875); William Lloyd Garrison (plaster, Smith College, 1880); Leif Ericson (plaster, bronzed, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1889); Roma (bronze, Wellesley College Museum, 1890); Frances E. Willard (Willard House, National Woman's Christian Temperance Union Museum, Evanston, Illinois, 1892); full-size bronze figure of Sumner erected in Harvard Square in Cambridge (1902).

The mid-19th century was a period of artistic awakening for American women, especially New Englanders. By the time of the Civil War in the 1860s, a colony of American women painters had settled in and around Paris, while the sculptors, following the lead of Harriet Hosmer , had migrated to Rome. Anne Whitney was a latecomer to this group, as well as to her art. A small, intrepid woman who had shown a strong social conscience from an early age, she had dabbled in poetry and modeled in clay for many years before she became seriously committed to sculpture at age 38, just before the devastating years of the Civil War.

Anne Whitney was born in 1821 in Watertown, Massachusetts. Her father Nathaniel R. Whitney II was a clerk in the Middlesex courts and a gentleman farmer; her mother Sarah Stone Whitney raised their large brood of children in the liberal and supportive atmosphere of their Unitarian family. Anne was educated at home except for one year, at age 13, during which she attended Mrs. Samuel Little's Select School for Young Ladies in Bucksport, Maine. Unlike her brothers, she was not sent to college, but as a girl and the seventh child of the family, she was fortunate to get the education she did.

In 1847, when she was 26, Whitney opened a school in Salem, Massachusetts, where she taught for two years and made many friends. Elizabeth Rogers Payne writes that Whitney fell in love with a man she decided she could not marry because of hereditary insanity in his family. She never married, although she numbered Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Unitarian leader Theodore Parker among her men friends. Many of her women friends were feminists and activists like herself, including feminist leader Lucy Stone, Antoinette Brown , the first ordained woman minister in the United States, and pioneering physician Elizabeth Blackwell . In 1850, Whitney was devastated by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, which required Northerners to return escaped slaves to the South. Abolitionism and the equality of women became two of the driving forces that guided her life and informed the body of her work.

The first of Whitney's poems to appear in print were published in Harper's, the Atlantic Monthly, and Una, a feminist journal. When Elizabeth Blackwell was working to raise money to establish a desperately needed women's hospital, Whitney helped by giving poetry readings and donating her earnings. In 1859, a collection of her poems was published in book form. In her hometown, Whitney had been a neighbor of Harriet Hosmer, a woman nine years her junior, who was already well established as a sculptor and had moved to Italy where she was selling her works for excellent prices. Now, in an unlikely move, Whitney shifted from poetry to a serious pursuit of sculpture. She found financial and emotional support of the change within her family; one brother transformed a shed on the family property into a studio, where her parents and her brother James posed as the subjects of some her earliest portraits.

That same year, when James and another brother, John, moved to Brooklyn, Whitney accompanied them in order to take anatomy lessons at a local hospital. There, she was reunited with close friends from her teaching days, the sisters Eliza and Fidelia Bridges and the family of William Augustus Brown, a Quaker shipowner and merchant. Fidelia Bridges, the younger of the two sisters, was a talented artist who would become well known for her nature studies as well as her illustrations of Celia Thaxter 's Poems. Orphaned at 15, Fidelia had been hired by the Brown family to care for their children. When the family moved to Brooklyn, Fidelia went with them. She also worked as a temporary governess for the children of Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. When Eliza Bridges joined her sister and opened a school in Brooklyn, her first students were the children of James and John Whitney.

It will take more than a Boston Arts Committee to quench me.

—Anne Whitney

The youngest of the Brown children, Laura (who did not live to adulthood), was immortalized on canvas by Bridges and in marble by Whitney. A marble bust of Laura Brown , at age three, became one of Anne Whitney's first commissions. To render in stone the ever-changing features of a three-year-old who refused to sit still might well have been one of the most difficult tasks the artist ever undertook. Nevertheless, the small marble statue is remarkably lively and free of affectations, showing the straightforward, simple, naturalistic style that was to characterize Whitney's work. In 1860, it was exhibited at the National Academy of Design.

During the two years Whitney remained in New York, she and Fidelia Bridges attended lectures by painter William Trost Richards and drawing classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. When Whitney began her first life-size sculpture, the subject she chose was Lady Godiva , the legendary 11th-century English heroine who rode naked through the streets of Coventry after her husband told her that only on that condition would he lower the citizens' ruinously high taxes as she had requested. The piece of marble imported for the work cost Whitney $500, an enormous sum at the time. At Richards' suggestion, she represented her subject clothed. The result, unfortunately, was to weaken the impact of the work, since Whitney had chosen Godiva for her defiance of unjust authority, and the clothing became a major feature of the workmanship in stone. Nevertheless, Lady Godiva was well received in Boston and New York, and drew considerable attention as a work done by a woman.

Whitney's strong abolitionist views caused her to resist the magnetic pull of Europe until the war ended. In 1862, while the conflict was still under way, she acquired a studio in Boston, next to William Rimmer, a cobbler who had taught himself medicine before turning to sculpture and was considered one of the best anatomy instructors in the country. Rimmer's father had lived a tortured life, believing he was the son of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, and the artist had inherited some of his father's somber intensity. His art anticipated modern concepts of sculpture, and many critics found his work controversial. Whitney studied for two years with this gifted and tormented man, and under his supervision she modeled what may well have been the first male nude done by an American woman. A later version of the work entitled Lotus Eater can still be seen at the Newark Museum in New Jersey.

During this period, Whitney's abolitionist concerns led her to produce a colossal figure called Africa, representing a black woman awakening from slavery, a work which the artist later destroyed. Another politically charged work she created was a statue of Toussaint L'Ouverture, the Haitian hero and liberator, often invoked by abolitionists, who opposed the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte and starved to death in a French prison. This work has also not survived.

In 1867, the war had been over for two years when Whitney sailed for Europe, at age 46, accompanied by Fidelia Bridges and another friend, Adeline Manning . Whitney remained for several years in Rome, joining the dynamic American women sculptors there (called "the White Marmorean Flock" by Henry James). Many Americans were both shocked and fascinated by these talented and emancipated women who seemed to prosper so well without men. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was inspired by Hosmer when he wrote The Marble Faun, nevertheless described her patronizingly as "the bright little woman hopping about in her premises with a birdlike sort of fashion."

While in Rome, Whitney produced a remarkable work entitled Roma, a statue that depicts an old beggar woman, hunched and seated with two coins in her hand. The expression of resignation on her face gives the figure a disturbing hopelessness. It was a politically sensitive period in Italy, before the country's final unification, and Italian authorities were deeply antagonized by the realistic style of the work, as well as a title they took to be an insult to their national pride for representing Rome as a despairing old beggar. Whitney managed to smuggle the sculpture out of the country, and a version of it in marble was exhibited in Philadelphia in 1876. Four years later, it was cast in bronze for Wellesley College. On the occasion of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, she made a colossal version of Roma, which had to be lowered from the top floor of her Boston studio through a huge window.

While many American artists were still faithfully rendering the ideal forms of classical art, Whitney was seeking her own voice. In Roma, she had expressed her concern for a country torn by civil unrest; in Le Modèle, created

during a stay in an artists' colony in France, she used irony to make her point. The concept of the artist's model had been so romanticized as to become trite. Using the same naturalistic style employed in Roma, Whitney went against the accepted classical-beauty standard of the period and showed an old peasant woman falling asleep as she poses for the artist.

Upon returning from Europe in 1871, Whitney moved into a new studio in Boston. Her reputation grew, and in 1873 the Commonwealth of Massachusetts offered her a commission to make a marble statue of Samuel Adams for Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. Whitney made a larger-than-life model and took it to Florence to select the marble and advise the workers who would do the actual carving. When the large marble statue of Samuel Adams arrived in the United States, it was exhibited in Boston before being sent to its final destination. Bostonians liked the work so much that the city commissioned a bronze replica that was erected in Adams Square.

With her work displayed in the U.S. Capitol, Whitney suddenly found the highest honor she had received thus far clouded by what was to be the greatest disappointment of her life. In a Boston Arts Committee competition to commemorate Charles Sumner, the abolitionist senator from Massachusetts, Whitney was one of 24 sculptors, along with Thomas Ball (whose studio she had used to apply the finishing touches to Samuel Adams), to submit models. Whitney felt a special affinity for the subject. Sumner had been a friend of her brother Alexander at Harvard, and the two men had remained close throughout their law school days. Whitney had not only known Sumner personally, but she had been an admirer and supporter of his views.

Submitted anonymously, Whitney's entry won first place—until it was discovered that the artist was a woman. To the outrage of Whitney and others, the Boston Arts Committee then decided to award the commission—and the $12,000 stipend—to Ball, on the grounds (and despite her acclaimed Samuel Adams) that it would be improper for a woman to sculpt a man. Along with Martin Milmore, a runner-up, Whitney instead received $500. Embittered by the unfairness, she swore never to enter another competition.

Nevertheless, Whitney did not allow the setback to destroy her. The following year, in 1876, she produced three sculptures for the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. At the age of 67, in 1888, Whitney had the opportunity to do a portrait bust of abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison, who was delighted by the work and wrote to his daughter, "It is admirably executed … and I am particularly pleased that it has been achieved by a woman." Meanwhile, her life remained guided by her social conscience and her feminist views. After her death, over 3,000 of her letters would be given to Wellesley College, where she had taught modeling in 1885, and the correspondence is a notable reflection of her activism and involvement in liberal causes. By the 1890s, she had embraced a modified form of socialism called nationalism which led her and her friend Adeline Manning, by then both elderly, to stand on street corners distributing pamphlets promoting the nationalization of basic industries.

By 1893, Whitney's renown had led to commissions for the four busts of leading American women for the World's Columbian Exposition held that year in Chicago. In her 70s at the time, she created portrait busts of Frances Willard , president of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union; Harriet Beecher Stowe , author of UncleTom's Cabin; Mary A. Livermore , a tireless suffragist and writer who gave some 800 lectures across the country; and Lucy Stone, who had convened the first national Woman's Rights Convention in 1850 at Worcester, Massachusetts. The works were displayed in the Woman's Building, one of the most popular exhibits at the fair, which became pivotal in advancing the acceptance of women's causes in the United States.

Whitney's best work emerged in those subjects which permitted her to express her convictions. Her colossal statue of Leif Ericson, produced in 1889, was one of her less impassioned efforts. Recent scholarship and the discovery of a Scandinavian-type tower in nearby Cambridge had presented the view that Norsemen had landed in North America prior to Columbus, and money for the figure had been raised by the Scandinavian community for the city of Boston. The statue was modeled from a handsome, muscular young man who posed for Whitney, but he is encased in such a splendid chain-mail tunic that the eye is distracted by the detail. The statue was so appealing to popular tastes that the city of Milwaukee decided it wanted one also, to be placed with its back to Lake Michigan, as if Ericson had just stepped off his boat. The cost for casting the figure in bronze came to $11,000—with an additional charge of $33.65 to Whitney for train fare for the man who accompanied the statue to Milwaukee.

Today, the original plaster model of Senator Charles Summer can be seen at the Watertown Free Public Library, where the subject is shown seated on a solid and democratic chair. His nobility is in the thoughtful determination of his expression rather than in his clothes. Milmore had shown the figure draped in a Roman toga, while an earlier version of Thomas Ball's entry in the Boston Arts competition depicted the senator in bedroom slippers. In contrast, Whitney represents him in contemporary but unobtrusive attire. The manner in which she chose to have a single large button pull the two sides of the jacket together is particularly effective, indicating casual neglect and simplicity. Such details make Anne Whitney a remarkable portrait artist.

Twenty-five years after her statue of Sumner had been turned down by the Boston Arts Committee, Whitney still had not forgotten the affront. Even though she was approaching 80, she undertook the enormous task of making the monument from the model she had submitted in 1875. Several Harvard professors helped her raise money for the project. As her new penthouse studio was not large enough for what she had in mind, she rented a studio outside of Boston. The finished statue was erected in Harvard Square in 1902. Anne Whitney, by then a diminutive white-haired woman, proved that indeed the Boston Arts Committee had not been able to quench her.


Craven, Wayne. Sculpture in America. NY: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1968.

Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer. American Women Sculptors: A History of Women Working in Three Dimensions. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1990.

Tufts, Eleanor. American Women Artists 1830–1930. Exhibition catalogue for the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1987.

suggested reading:

Payne, Elizabeth Rogers. "Anne Whitney, Sculptures: Art and Social Justice," in Massachusetts Review. Spring 1971.


Whitney Archives, Wellesley College Library, Wellesley, Massachusetts.

Claire Hsu Accomando , writer on art and history and author of Love and Rutabaga: A Remembrance of the War Years (St. Martin's Press, 1993)

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Whitney, Anne (1821–1915)

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