Women in Art: Harriet Hosmer and Hiram Powers

Harriet Hosmer was an American woman sculptor working in Rome in the 1800s. Her work isn’t necessarily something I personally love, but I really respect her mastery of technique and her impact upon the artistic world. She’s often ignored in history books, but with the recent resurgence of feminist art historians searching for overlooked women in art history, I feel that she will become more renowned and admired as time goes on.

Hosmer's "Oenone"

I wrote a paper about Hosmer and Hiram Powers last quarter, comparing how the two were treated by historians and critics and how that may have been affected by her gender. I’m actually very excited about this paper (From which I will be stealing much of this post). My incredibly badass and inspiring teacher, Dr. Tina Lent, submitted it for the Akyuz-Ozmen Award for excellence in feminist scholarship, part of RIT’s Kearse awards, and it won! Thank you art and feminism! You never lead me astray…

But back to the artists. Looking at their careers, it’s very obvious that gender played a huge role in how their work was received and how their careers played out. Hosmer was generally treated much more critically than Powers. Her work was often attributed to other artists, including to her teacher John Gibson (a great sculptor in his own right) as well as to her workmen.

The defining scandal of Hosmer’s career lay with what many consider her greatest work, Zenobia in Chains. This sculpture is very similar in subject and style to Hiram Power’s renowned The Greek Slave. In fact, it was and still is frequently compared to Power’s piece. However, while Powers was given large amounts of adulation for his sculpture, Hosmer faced accusations about her integrity and ability to sculpt. Because of Hosmer’s sex, many questioned her ability to work with the heavy tools and solid stone, citing her fragility and delicacy as a woman. Members of the art community accused Hosmer of hiring workmen to create the sculpture without her input, printing slander in periodicals and newspapers of the time including Art Journal and The Queen. Hosmer did use carvers and assistants to create the piece, a practice that was typical of her time. While prominent sculptors would conceptualize and create the piece in clay it was left to assistants to actually carve the finished marble. This was done to save time as sculptors of her caliber were often called upon to create more and more work, including copies of previous works. Hosmer defended this practice in an issue of The Atlantic Monthly saying

“We women-artists have no objection to its being known that we employ assistants; we merely object to its being supposed that it is a system peculiar to ourselves”

Hosmer's "Zenobia in Chains" and Powers' "The Greek Slave"

Hosmer fully understood the accusations against her, and made her point well; men sculptors used assistants too, it was not a “weakness” specific to women sculptors. In fact, Hiram Powers also used assistants to carve his work. Using the same process as Hosmer, Powers would sculpt a clay model and have his studio assistants carve the final piece. Unlike Hosmer, Powers did not face any accusations of not creating his own work.

More after the jump!

In addition to attacks upon her work, Hosmer also faced attacks upon her femininity and sexuality (She was a lesbian, but crazily enough this did not affect her work!). Critics of the time, and even Hosmer herself, played up her unusual childhood, in which she ran, swam, and partook of the most boyish of activities. Critics were looking for a way to explain her “masculine” ambition. To do this, they downplayed the idea of Hosmer as a “woman sculptor” and played up the idea of Hosmer as an unnatural woman. In fact, Hosmer’s contemporary women sculptors were grouped together in a term coined by novelist Henry James, calling them, “that strange sisterhood of American ‘lady sculptors’ who at one time settled upon the seven hills [of Rome] in a white, marmorean flock”. By marking these women as masculine, society was able to credit their success to masculinity rather than conceding to the idea of women as intellectual equals.

"Beatrice Cenci"

Hosmer also had to deny the possibility of marriage. She herself said in a letter to her patron,

“Even if so inclined, an artist has no business to marry. For a man, it may be well enough, but for a woman, on whom matrimonial duties and cares weigh more heavily, it is a moral wrong, I think, for she must either neglect her profession or her family, becoming neither a good wife and mother nor a good artist. My ambition is to become the latter, so I wage eternal feud with the consolidating knot.”  

This is a common problem faced by women artists, even today. Did they want a family? Or did they want a career? It was incredibly difficult and often impossible to have both. Hosmer accepts this idea as fact, recognizing that women were the ones carrying the burden of running a home and raising children. Powers was not forced to choose. He had a wife and children, as well as a successful career. His wife stayed at home and took care of domestic life. It is wonderful to see how far we have come, where women aren’t necessarily the ones who stay home to raise the children. While it’s still more often women cooking, cleaning, and raising the kids, this is changing little by little, becoming more fair.

I should mention that Hosmer was able to pursue her career because she was incredibly privileged. Her father was fairly wealthy, and able to fund her life in Rome while she was an apprentice. In her early life he encouraged her to pursue the activities she wanted to pursue, not necessarily the most feminine ones. He was also able to send her to the best schools where she made invaluable connections, connections which enabled her for example, to study anatomy at a university in which women were not allowed to observe naked men, as it was considered improper, or introduced her to powerful men and women who would serve as life long mentors and patrons. Powers did not have a privileged background, but neither did he need one. He was able to make it on talent and hard work, while Hosmer needed talent, hard work, and connections to overcome the gender barrier.


 Hosmer is largely unknown. Before this paper, I had never heard of her. While Powers was generally recognized by art historians and by art enthusiasts, Hosmer was left in the shadows. However, with the increasing number of art historians interested in rediscovering ignored women artists, we should expect to see her career propelled to new heights. In fact, several of the books I found on Hosmer were written in the past few years, with very few before that. Hopefully this delightful trend will continue.

"Puck on a Toadstool"

"Sleeping Faun"

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