Harriet Goodhue Hosmer is not a household name these days, but her place in American history is firmly assured by her beautiful sculptures. Never heard of her? Neither had I. When I began researching 19th century American artists for a series of blogs it occurred to me that we probably didn’t know much about the women like Harriet Hosmer.
Not to be snarky, we tended to give women short shrift in their professional and personal lives until about mid-20th century. We do, after all, live in a more patriarchal world. That’s the way the world turns.arriet Goodhue Hosmer is not a household name these days, but her place in American history is firmly assured by her beautiful sculptures.
Never heard of her? Neither had I. When I began researching 19th century American artists for a series of blogs it occurred to me that we probably didn’t know much about the women like Harriet Hosmer.
So, Harriet Hosmer wasn’t treated with any less respect than most professional women. Quick, name a famous woman physician from the 19th century. See what I mean? It is interesting to me that we tend to know about women writers, however. I wonder why that is so? I digress.
Here are basic facts about Ms. Hosmer who was born in Watertown, Massachusetts, just outside Boston. (October 9, 1830-February 21, 1908) who was a neoclassical sculptor. She was the first woman professional sculptor and in the United States during the 19th century.
Did you know she invented a chemical process that turned ordinary limestone into marble? Neither did I. That alone is quite a feat that changed how we make things and what we can do. The world is awash in limestone, not marble.
Harriet was a sickly child whose mother and siblings died while she was young. Her father, a physician, encouraged her to pursue physical activities to strengthen her body and its capacity to fight against illness. She became adept at many individual sporting activities that improved her upper body strength.
Rowing on the river gave her body a boost to get strong, a necessary component for a sculptor. Physical activity was only one area of her studies. Her father wanted her to develop her artistic abilities and provided her the opportunity to do so.
As her drawing and modeling skills improved, her father knew she could benefit from studying anatomy. He sent to Missouri to attend Missouri Medical College. After that course, she returned home and continued her studies in modeling. Not runway modeling, clay, you guys!
The Sleeping Faun by Harriet Goodhue Hosmer
She traveled to Rome for further instruction from Welsh sculptor John Gibson. Naturally her father accompanied her on this jaunt because young ladies did not traipse around the world on their own. Her friend and famous American astronomer Maria Mitchell said of her:
“When Hosmer knew herself to be a sculptor, she knew also that in America was no school for her. She must leave home, she must live where art could live. She might model her busts in clay of her own soil, but who should follow out in marble the delicate thought which the clay expressed? The workmen of Massachusetts tended the looms, built the railroads, and read the newspapers.
The hard-handed men of Italy worked in marble from the designs put before them; one copied the leaves which the sculptor threw into the wreaths around the brows of his heroes; another turned with the tool the folds of the drapery; another wrought up the delicate tissues of the flesh; none of them dreamed of ideas – they were copyists – the very hand-work that her head needed. And to Italy she went…”
— Maria Mitchell, c. 1857
In Rome, she belonged to a circle of friends who were all famous artists in their own right, including writers, composers, painters, sculptors and in Florence she was befriend by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning. Below see the beautiful piece she sculpted of their hands.
Women sculptors didn’t study with live models as the men did. It was not considered appropriate for them to do so. Of course, women saw sculpture of naked men in the galleries and museums and that was allowed. Very confusing rules in our various cultures! Well, Miss Harriet took matters into her own hands with her studies of anatomy and viewing classical sculpture in Italy.
Her extensive exposure to, and knowledge of, classical and ancient sculpture led her to base her work upon the same kinds of themes as the greatest sculptors. That would include subjects such as mythological creatures, people and scenes. She was so talented and successful her fame grew beyond Italy.
I have included several examples of her work in this blog. It would be spectacular to see some in real life, as it were. Her work is stunning. It looks as though the people could stand up and walk away any minute. Her father was right to encourage his daughter to pursue something she was clearly gifted to do.
Ms. Hosmer spent time living in Chicago and Terre Haute, but she came back to Watertown to live and work. Her work was on both large and small scale, which garnered her even more praise in her lifetime. While women didn’t have careers, especially professional careers, as we do now, Ms. Hosmer literally carved one out for herself.
She was known for the beauty of her work and made a living with her sculpture, something that was quite unusual for her time. She also helped led other women artists into a new future of acceptance with her example of producing excellent work that was in high demand and for which she was paid a decent wage.
Her sculpting reveals the beauty of the human body and her eye for seeing and capturing it in hard stone. She was recognized as the leading woman sculptor of the 19th century in the United States and beyond.
In June, we will look at three more woman sculptors, all of whom owe their recognition not only to their own ability but to Harriet Goodhue Hosmer, the leading light of 19th century American artists.
Have a great week!