Throughout March, which is Women's History Month, I want to share with my readers notable women of the past about whom you may know little. They may be writers or have had books recently written about them. Today's notable woman from history is the sculptor Harriet Hosmer and were it not for Kate Culkin, who has recently published a book on her, I would have not known about Harriet Hosmer. Read her guest post to learn how Hosmer became the focus of many years of study for Culkin and why she's important to us today.
I went through a serious Henry James phase while in college. I read Portrait of Lady again and again, wrote several papers on it, and even had a vivid dream in which Isabel Archer visited my dorm room, perching at the end of my bed in her long blue dress and tiny boots. My love of James is probably what first attracted me to Harriet Hosmer. Like many of his characters, she was a spunky Yankee gal who journeyed to the decadent “Old World.” The real woman, however, met with a happier fate than the fictional ones.
Born in Watertown, Massachusetts, in 1830, Hosmer moved to Italy to become a sculptor in 1852. Rome in the mid-nineteenth century was what Paris would be to a later generation of expatriates, and Hosmer’s circle included the Brownings and Nathaniel Hawthorne. She lived with the actress Charlotte Cushman and Emma Stebbins, who sculpted the angel fountain in Central Park that appears in many movies. When Hosmer was only 27, the New York Times raved of her Beatrice Cenci (pictured), “the conception of the statue is masterly.” Other highlights of her career include Zenobia in Chains and her memorial to Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton. Hosmer devoted much of her later life to creating a perpetual motion machine, but she had a career renaissance with her model of Queen Isabella, shown at the 1894 California Mid-Winter Fair. When she died in 1908, the Boston Globe titled her obituary “Most Famous of American Women Sculptors.” All in all, a much better outcome than Isabel Archer’s disastrous marriage.
When I first started reading about Hosmer, I was fascinated by her life, but I had a pressing question: How did she do it? How did she rise to fame so quickly in an era in which there were so many obstacles to female achievement? I was frustrated by the descriptions of her as “ahead of her time” and of her success as “miraculous.” There had to be a better answer.
After years of digging through archives and hunching over microfilm machines, I concluded that Hosmer’s fame came about because an extensive network of supporters with a vested interest in her success worked tirelessly to promote her. Her patrons included boosters of American gentility, hoping to prove the United States as refined as Europe, and women’s rights advocates. A successful female American sculptor was a boon to both groups, and they portrayed the Harriet’s skill and accomplishments not as a miracle, but as evidence of what Americans and women were capable of with the proper encouragement. Hosmer actively courted these supporters; James himself made note of her skill at what we would call networking. She was, he wrote, “above all a character, strong, fresh and interesting, destined, whatever statues she made, to make friends that were better still than even these at their best.”
While I love reading biographies, writing one proved to be pretty tricky. I wanted to celebrate Hosmer, but not whitewash her less savory aspects. This meant acknowledging that Hosmer sometimes made racist remarks and was often selfish, and that her obsession with perpetual motion was, well, ill-conceived. As a historian, moreover, I had been trained to analyze facts, not speculate on the emotions that motivate people. It took me awhile to become comfortable discussing how Hosmer’s own passions, such as her love for Louisa, Lady Ashburton, as well as historical forces, such as industrialization and the Civil War, shaped her life. I also wanted to write a book that would be enjoyable to read. This might seem like an obvious goal, but, honestly, it is not always a priority for academics; to that end, I was thrilled when Publisher’s Weekly described the book as “fluid and lucid.” I think what ultimately made the project difficult was the pressure I felt to write a biography that was worthy of its subject’s fascinating life. I hope I succeeded.
I have posted reading questions for book clubs on A Biographer’s Blog. And if any book club within striking distance of New York City would like me to visit, please contact me. I love nothing more than introducing people to this woman I have spent so many years with.