Harriet Hosmer was one of the best known artists — and one of the best known professional women — of her time. She paved the way for women to become sculptors, while commenting on the status of women through her work.
She was also one of the most independent women of her age.
“I honor every woman who has strength enough to step out of the beaten path when she feels that her walk lies in another,” she once wrote.
She was born Oct. 9, 1830, in Watertown, Mass. Her father, a prominent physician, deeply mourned the loss of his wife and three other children to tuberculosis. He then determined his surviving child would be free and strong. So he influenced her to build her strength by rowing, skating and riding.
Dr. Hiram Hosmer supported his daughter’s early decision to become a sculptor. Barred from studying anatomy on the East Coast because of her sex, he sent her to St. Louis to study anatomy at the Missouri Medical College. On one trip west, she won a footrace to the top of a mountain in Iowa. It’s now called Mount Hosmer in honor of her victory.
By 1851 Harriet Hosmer had earned enough commissions for portrait busts to return to Boston and pursue her art.
She then befriended the writer Lydia Marie Child and the cross-dressing actress Charlotte Cushman. Cushman planned to give up the stage and move to Rome. In 1852, she took 22-year-old Harriet Hosmer with her.
“I am soul-bound and thought-bound in this land of dollars and cents,” Hosmer wrote.
In Rome, Harriet Hosmer had many relationships with women, including Cushman’s partner Matilda Hays. She was committed for 25 years to Louisa, Lady Ashburton, a widowed Scottish noblewoman who she called her “sposa.” Hosmer, who dressed like a man, called herself “hubbie.”
When she first came to Rome, Hosmer began studying under leading British sculptor John Gibson. As the life of every party, she played a central role in an expatriate group of artists and writers. Those included Edmonia Lewis, sculptor William Wetmore Story and Henry James. James described a “strange sisterhood of lady sculptors” that included Anne Whitney, whose statue of Samuel Adams stands in front of Faneuil Hall. Also belonging to the group: Louisa Lander, the great-granddaughter of Elias Haskett Derby; and Margaret Foley, the daughter of a Vermont farmhand. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about them in The Marble Faun.
Hosmer was probably the only one of the group who earned enough money from her art to support herself. She worked alone in her large studio, lived by herself and went horseback riding without a male escort.
In 1854 Harriet Hosmer made a career breakthrough: a statue of Puck so popular she then replicated it 30 times. The Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, bought a copy. Today, her Puck and the Owl at the Boston Athenaeum are on the Women’s Heritage Trail.
Hear Me Roar
Most of her subjects were tragic women from myth and literature.
Her masterpiece, Zenobia in Chains, sold for about $400,000 in 1859. It is a seven-foot-tall sculpture of a 3rd-century queen captured by a Roman emperor and paraded through the streets in chains. The dignified, clothed statue of Zenobia is Hosmer’s own commentary on the fear of female power. She now stands in the St. Louis Art Museum.
“Zenobia is one of the most famous – and controversial – objects produced during the “golden age” of American classical sculpture,” wrote curator John Murdoch. “Some critics at the time questioned whether a work of such sublime expression, on such a scale, and requiring such power of hand and arm in the carving, could have been done by a woman.”
Her neoclassical style of art fell out of favor after the Civil War, and she devoted more of her time to turning limestone into marble and inventing a perpetual motion machine.
In 1860, the State of Missouri commissioned her to create a monumental bronze statue of Thomas Hart Benton.
Harriet Hosmer then grew more and more involved in the women’s rights movement, befriending Susan B. Anthony and joining with the Chicago women’s rights group, the Queen Isabella Society. The society commissioned her to sculpt Isabella of Castille for the 1892 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
She spent the rest of her life in Chicago and Terre Haute, Ind. Harriet Hosmer died at Watertown, Mass., on February 21, 1908.
Photos: Thomas Hart Benton By Whitebox at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15475106; Zenobia in Chains By Harriet Hosmer – Own work by QuartierLatin1968, 2011-05-27, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15381767.
This story last updated in 2022.