Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Friday, October 9, 2020

Harriet Hosmer: She "Knew Herself to be a Sculptor"

Harriet Goodhue Hosmer, American Sculptor (born 9 October 1830)


Harriet Hosmer, 
photo by Matthew Brady
The name of Harriet Hosmer came to my attention only recently--as part of the widespread protests in response to the murder of George Floyd, in particular, and to the growing resistance movement that addressed larger issues of police brutality, systemic racism, and social injustice. 

As statues honoring Confederate generals and white supremacy at long last began to come down, a monument that remained standing was Thomas Ball's Freedman's Memorial

While the intentions of those who worked to create a monument to Lincoln's emancipation of enslaved men and women may have been good, the memorial itself as long been a source of controversy: it might portray "the hopes, dreams, [and] striving" of those who constructed it, but it also represents the "ultimate failures of reconstruction."

Calling Ball's monument a "problematic depiction of the fight to achieve emancipation," Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton has said that she will introduce legislation to have the statue removed.

While the "great emancipator" might remain secure on his pedestal, at least for the moment, Ball's sculpture has undergone a new round of criticism for its imagery--a white man "giving" freedom to the unclothed black man kneeling at his feet. (For Patrick Browne's excellent essay on this "misguided" monument, written long before the events of this year, click here.)

The sculpture was funded by freed slaves, and while Frederick Douglas spoke at the monument's dedication, he later made it clear that his feelings were complex--Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation only reluctantly. Lincoln was neither the "man" nor the "model" for the struggle of those who had been enslaved. Later still, Douglas noted his reservations about the Ball design for the sculpture: “What I want to see before I die is a monument representing the negro, not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man.” 

So that was the context in which I first heard Harriet Hosmer's name--because Thomas Ball's was only one proposal for the memorial, one that was selected after Harriet Hosmer's original design was judged to be too expensive. Or perhaps too controversial.

In fact, Harriet Hosmer's 1867 design for the sculpture had been accepted by the commission overseeing the building of the memorial. Her proposal was not for a sculpture with one submissive freed slave at Lincoln's feet. Instead, it was a monument that featured Black Americans--above a base that depicted scenes from Lincoln's life, and posted around a Lincoln lying in his casket, were to be four "colossal statues" that "display the progressive stages of liberation" of African Americans: an enslaved man for sale, a slave "laboring on the plantation," a Black man aiding Union soldiers, and, finally, a Black soldier. In describing this figure, David Cranor writes, "The latter figure, standing with eyes gazing forward in uniform and holding a gun, would be shown having gained freedom, legitimacy and power."

But white members of the commission overseeing the monument insisted on a redesign--Lincoln lying in his coffin had to be swapped out with a standing Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation in one hand. Below him were four allegorical figures (female, of course), representing liberty. The Black men were retained, but they were bumped down, farther out and below Lincoln and the Liberties.

Harriet Hosmer's redesigned
proposal for the Freedman's Memorial
Eventually, of course, Ball's design, with the "figure of a liberated slave crouching below . . . Lincoln" was substituted for Hosmer's.

So who was Harriet Hosmer?

When fundraising began for this memorial, Harriet Hosmer was a already a well-established artist. As a girl, she had not only been allowed to pursue her interests in art, but her father encouraged her interest in anatomy. Her studies were informal at first, but she traveled to St. Louis for private instruction in anatomy at the Missouri  Medical College.

After returning to Boston, she left for Rome in 1852 with the actress Charlotte Cushman. Once there, she earned a place in the studio of John Gibson (along with several other American women, including Edmonia Lewis and Emma Stebbins, disparagingly referred to by the novelist Henry James as the "white marmorean flock"). In Rome, Hosmer was not only surrounded by classical sculpture, she was also able to work with live models, a rare opportunity for women artists. She also began a relationship with Louisa, lady Ashburton, a relationship that would last twenty-five years.

Hosmer had a long and successful career. She eventually returned to the United States and died in the place of her birth, Watertown, Massachusetts, on 21 February 1908.

Hosmer's Zenobia in Chains,
Saint Louis Art Museum

For once there is a wealth of material--easily accessible--about the life and work of Harriet Hosmer, so you will be able to read widely and enjoy reproductions of her work. I find it particularly interesting that many of Hosmer's pieces are of figures of historical women, including Zenobia, queen of Palmyra, and Beatrice Cenci. And Hosmer knew several women who have made an appearance in this blog, including Susan B. Anthony, Lydia Maria Child, Phebe Ann Hanaford, and Fanny Kemble. And, hey! There is an entry for Harriet Hosmer in the Encyclopedia Britannica!!

The phrase she "knew herself to be a sculptor" comes from Maria Mitchell, the American astronomer and teacher. When she was in Rome, Mitchell met Hosmer, and her memoirs include a description of their meeting