The Harriet Hosmer Night Thread

Tonight’s thread is dedicated to LGBT artist Harriet Goodhue Hosmer (1830-1908), an important figure in American visual art during the 19th century.  Hosmer is considered to have been the first American, female professional sculptor, and she achieved both fame and critical acclaim during her lifetime (though some of the latter was of the condescending, sexist  “Oh, that’s great…for a woman” variety). She adapted European Neoclassicism to a personal vision that reflected her own beliefs concerning women’s equality. Capable of producing work on a large scale and to specific order, she was especially proficient in the execution of public monuments. Her smaller works were frequently produced in multiples to accommodate the great demand for them.

Harriet Hosmer

Hosmer was born in Watertown, Massachusetts to Sarah Grant Hosmer and physician Hiram Hosmer. Before she turned twelve, her mother, sister, and two infant brothers died of tuberculosis. Hosmer herself had been sickly, and her father, concerned with his remaining child’s health, encouraged her to embark upon a course of physical training in order to strengthen her constitution. Consequently, she became an expert rower, skater, and rider. Mt. Hosmer, near Lansing, Iowa, was named for her after she won a footrace to the summit of the hill during the 1850s.

She demonstrated an early talent for sculpture and took anatomy lessons with her father, who encouraged her educational and artistic pursuits. She later studied anatomy at Missouri Medical College, moved to Rome in 1852, and studied with Welsh sculptor John Gibson there from 1853 to 1860. In 1858, Hosmer established her own studio in Rome, leading a team comprising more than twenty men.

In addition to trailblazing in her career, she followed her own path in her personal life. She was a lesbian whose most significant and enduring bond was with Louisa, Lady Ashburton (1827-1903), widow of Bingham Baring, 2nd Baron Ashburton. Hosmer met Ashburton in 1867, and the two embarked upon a twenty-five year long relationship. Ashburton was not only a source of artistic inspiration and emotional support for Hosmer, but she also provided her with financial support and helped Hosmer negotiate the post-Civil War era, when Neoclassical art began to fall out of fashion.

Louisa, Lady Ashburton

Hosmer’s work frequently focuses on women, typically figures from mythology, literature, and history, and she approached her subjects from a distinctly female perspective. For example, her Medusa is perhaps the most sympathetic and compassionate portrayal of this mythic gorgon in visual art, as it evokes her role as the poster girl for the “blame the victim” mentality of patriarchal cultures.

Medusa, 1854

In Greek mythology, Medusa was the nymph raped by the god Poseidon in a temple dedicated to his niece, the goddess Athena. Athena’s rage at the defilement of her temple was not directed at her uncle, who committed the rape, but at Medusa, whom she punished by turning into the snake-haired monster whose gaze turned men to stone. Hosmer’s Medusa is shown at the very beginning of her metamorphosis. She still possesses her humanity, her face is melancholy, but strands of her hair are beginning to turn into snakes.

Her Beatrice Cenci is a portrait of the young, 16th century Roman noblewoman who, along with three other members of her family, murdered her monstrously abusive father, Count Francesco Cenci, and was beheaded for the crime in 1599 despite numerous pleas for clemency on her behalf. Hosmer’s sculpture depicts her in a state of tranquil contemplation on the night before her execution. It leaves no doubt that Hosmer’s sympathy lies with the horribly abused young woman who killed her tormentor.

Beatrice Cenci, 1857

Zenobia in Chains, Hosmer’s most famous work, is a seven foot tall statue depicting the queen of Palmyra after her defeat by the Roman emperor Aurelian. She likely chose Zenobia as a subject in order to depict a strong woman ruler, at a moment of potential humiliation, who perseveres and maintains her dignity. It has been suggested that Hosmer also meant Zenobia to be interpreted as an abolitionist statement. Additionally, captive women were common subjects in Neoclassical sculpture, and one can see in Hosmer’s Zenobia a deliberate challenge to that genre. In contrast to the naked, submissive female captives created by contemporary male artists, such as Hiram Powers’ male-gazey Greek Slave, Zenobia is shown as dignified, fully clothed in her royal robes and diadem, and holding the chains in her hands, as though she has ownership over her captivity.

Zenobia in Chains, 1859

Harriet Hosmer enjoyed tremendous success during a time when American women were typically denied higher education, shut out of the art world (including not being allowed to use live models), and discouraged from pursuing any sort of career. In a testimonial to her worldview and her independence, Hosmer remarked in 1868, “I honor every woman who has strength enough to step outside the beaten path when she feels that her walk lies in another; strength enough to stand up and be laughed at, if necessary.”

Have fun posting, and have a great night!