Harriet Hosmer. When she sculpted, she broke the mold
AMERICAN-born Harriet Hosmer made her mark in Rome - as the most famous woman sculptor of her day. That day was the latter half of the 19th century, and young, hardworking women sculptors were definitely a curiosity. Her first sculptures were of little animals modeled from the raw clay of the Massachusetts countryside.
Her father thought the outdoors was good for her, and with him she hiked the wooded hills around Watertown, Mass., where she was born. When very young, she learned to swim and ride horseback, how to row and skate, and how to shoot pistols and bow and arrows. All this robust, outdoors activity gave Hosmer a taste for an active way of life. It gave her self-confidence and an independent spirit.
By the time she left Mrs. Sedgewick's School, where her father had sent the 15-year-old tomboy to get some polish, she had decided to become a sculptor. Soon using sharp chisels and large, heavy mallets for hours at a time, she was working in her own studio constructed on the property of her father's home in Watertown. Because women were not sculptors in the late 1840s - it seemed much too unladylike an occupation! - the neighborhood began to talk.
Later, Hosmer went into Boston for lessons with the sculptor Paul Stevenson. Still, because she was a woman, she was unsuccessful in her attempts to enter a medical school. She needed this training to learn more about the body so she could sculpt the human figure.
Later Hosmer studied anatomy with a doctor in Columbia, Mo. - although she was not allowed to enter the all-male classes in the medical school. At the end of the course, determined to see more of the West, Hosmer traveled down the Mississippi on a riverboat to New Orleans and back up to St. Paul. She smoked a peace pipe with Dakota Indians and beat several young men in a race of climbing the highest bluff along the Mississippi.
Returning to Watertown, she sculpted a bust titled ``Hesper,'' or ``Evening Star.'' It was so well received by critics and friends that she determined to go to Italy to study with a master sculptor. Once there, she met the prominent English sculptor John Gibson. He offered her a small studio in his garden and under his tutelage she completed a Daphne and then a Medusa. Copies of these were sent to America and England.
Hosmer's picturesque behavior - she wore pantaloons, a smock, and a beret and rode a fine saddle horse unchaperoned - soon made her one of the attractions of Rome. Her friend Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote of her:
``... She lives here all alone, dines and breakfasts at the cafes exactly as a young man would; works from 6 o'clock in the morning till night, as a great artist must....''
In 1860 Hosmer returned to the United States for a visit. While there she received a commission from the state of Missouri to sculpt a full-length statue of Thomas Hart Benton, the distinguished senator and author. The statue, shown in the accompanying photographs, stands in Lafayette Park, St. Louis.
A striking feature of the statue is the fact that Benton is dressed like Roman senator rather than American one. Because American sculptors had not solved the problem of up-to-date dress, Hosmer showed Benton in a toga and sandals and felt pride in having been ``bold enough to represent a modern without trousers, substituting drapery.''
One of her most popular pieces is an impish figure of Puck seated on a toadstool. When the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) bought this piece, it became so popular that it was reproduced 30 times.
Not only was Harriet Hosmer America's first woman sculptor, she was also considered the most famous woman sculptor of her day.