08 September 2013

The Zenobia Scandal

Will not -- shall not -- every American look with pride -- an honest, noble pride -- on this marble effigy of Zenobia, because it is the ideal, the production, of an American, and that American a woman.*

Zenobia-in-Chains, an over-life size (7 foot, 208 cm) marble statue made by the American artist living and working in Rome, Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908), was one of the most famous — and controversial — objects produced during the golden age of American classical sculpture in the mid-19th century.**  It was long assumed to be lost or destroyed, but after 123 years, it is again on public display at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, California. 

In contrast to typical classical sculptures of captive women -- naked, in shackles, and with downcast eyes (as, for example, Hiram Powers' titillating Greek Slave) -- Zenobia is dignified, fully dressed and holding the chains in her hands, as if she has ownership over her captivity.

It was a bold statement for any woman artist of the time to make. While many Neoclassical artists depicted mythological figures, Hosmer was chiefly drawn to female characters whose stories could be viewed as allegories for her strongly held feminist beliefs.  As she said,
Every woman should have the opportunity of cultivating her talents to the fullest extent, for they were not given her for nothing.
She began working on the monumental statue in 1858, taking new studio space to match the statue's size.  That December, she wrote to an American friend:

I wish you could raise your eyes from this paper to see what at this particular moment of writing I can see.  It would be a huge, magnificent room ... with a monstrous lump of clay, which will be ... Zenobia.

Harriet Hosmer ca. 1855
Soon afterwards, the American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne (author of, among other books,  The Scarlet Letter) was in Rome and visited Hosmer in her new studio:
Zenobia stood in the centre of the room, as yet unfinished in the clay, but a very noble and remarkable statue indeed, full of dignity and beauty.... I have seldom or never been more impressed by a piece of modern sculpture.
The visit a year later of Sir Henry Layard -- English explorer, archaeologist, and trustee of the British Musum (an institution today loaded with treasures from Layard's excavations at Nimrud) -- was to bear spectacular fruit in the promotion of her career:  "I want to hear about your Zenobia", Layard wrote to her afterwards.  "Is she yet turned into a pillar of marble, for the admiration of posterity, or does she still stand in her frail mortal clay?"  He continues:
You have probably heard that there is to be a great universal exhibition in England in 1862....  I hope you will be induced to send something, that the women and men of England may know what a young lady of genius, with the estimable qualities of perseverance and determination, can effect. 

And so the statue travelled to the world fair in London to be set alongside the work of John Gibson -- the Welsh sculptor in whose Roman studio she had trained and where she had until recently worked -- in a place of high honour, thanks to Layard's influence.  With characteristic pride and modesty, Hosmer wrote to an American friend and patron (March 1862):
You don't know what a grand place they have assigned the Zenobia in the English exhibition.  A small octagonal temple is to be erected, with niches on four sides, to be lined with Pompeian red.  Into three of these go Mr Gibson's  colored statues, and into the fourth my own unworthy one.  This structure is to be just in the centre of the Exhibition.
That location also put Harriet Hosmer herself at centre stage in the most important international exhibition of the decade.  Her work was well received.  In three weeks, over 15,000 people paid to view the statues in their little temple.  Critics described Zenobia as "a figure of command", "a noble figure of Queenlike dignity" (no little praise when Victoria was on the British throne), and more poetically as "a high, heroic ode". 

Hosmer was on the verge of claiming a very high rank among the sculptors of the day.  

Harriet Hosmer 1857
But what if she hadn't actually made this giant statue? 

What if Zenobia was, in fact, carved by another hand?

On September 1, 1863, The Art Journal published an anonymous letter which complained about the meretricious charms of Zenobia -- said to be by Miss Hosmer but really executed by an Italian workman at Rome. Soon after, the prestigious British fashion and style magazine The Queen repeated this claim in a widely-read article.  


Are these her assistants or take-over artists?
Hosmer with her Italian workmen (1861), posing before her 'Fountain of the Sirens'.
When she produced the towering Zenobia, the work was quickly met with disbelief that a woman created it.   Some critics 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.  In a way, The Art Journal and The Queen were pushing at an open door.

We won!  The enemy queen is our war trophy.

Harriet Hosmer saw it quite differently:
When [my brother artists in Rome] declared that I did not do my own work, I felt that I must have made some progress in my art; otherwise they would not have been so ready to attribute that work to one of their own sex.


That Roman rumpus is the subject of a new book, The Zenobia Scandal: A Meditation on Male Jealousy by New York artist Patricia Cronin.**  Cronin explores Hosmer's life in Rome leading up to the events as they played out after the Great Exhibition.  In the Zenobia Scandal,  Cronin lets everyone speak in their own voices: "Since all the characters involved, whether it was Henry James or Nathaniel Hawthorne or Elizabeth Barrett Browning, were major figures in the arts, I realized [that] I didn’t need to write this narrative.  I just let them speak in their own words, friends and foes alike.  So I sequenced their quotes to chronicle this event and Hosmer’s clever response that also really resonated with me."

So, early on, we hear Hosmer's lament: 
I had not been long in Rome before I was informed that an artist, with whom I was upon the most friendly terms, had engaged in spreading a report that the work which I claimed as my own was in reality the production of a paid workman.
As Cronin reflects, "While I was trying to figure out how and why Harriet Hosmer got erased from history, I learned ... exactly how people try to wipe you out: destroy your reputation, damage you financially so you just disappear."

Harriet Hosmer, however, was not about to disappear.
I hope and trust I may soon be involved in a law suit,  For seven years it has been whispered about that I do not do my own work but employ a man to do it for me.  This scandal has now reached the point when I am accused of being a hypocrite and a humbug.... 
The appearance of this damaging slander in print finally gave her the ammunition to initiate a libel action against the man responsible for starting the hare running and The Queen which had run with it.

The matter was put into the hands of a London lawyer, with Hosmer claiming damages of 1000 pounds -- a small fortune at the time.  The editor of The Queen quickly folded: if she withdrew her suit, he would print a fulsome apology and pay all costs.  She accepted his offer on the further condition that the grovelling apology also be inserted in The Times of London and the Galignani Messenger, (an English-language newspaper published in Paris, which circulated among the English-speaking community on the Continent -- rather like today's International Herald Tribune).

So Hosmer won, hands down. 

Zenobia was Hosmer's personal statement.  She chose Zenobia as a subject when all the men were choosing sexy suicidal Cleopatra – that’s how they saw women.  But Hosmer, as Patricia Cronin sees it, chose to depict a strong woman ruler at a moment of potential humiliation who, through her own agency persists, perseveres and prospers. This subject choice, as she says, is intentional.

The last word, of course, belongs to Harriet Hosmer:

I honor every woman who has strength enough to step off of the beaten path when she feels that her walk lies in another; strength enough to stand up to be laughed at, if necessary. That is a bitter pill we must all swallow in the beginning....[I]n a few more years it will not be thought strange that women should be preachers and sculptors, and every one who comes after us will have to bear fewer and fewer blows."

"I would love that," says Patricia Cronin. "Nothing would make me happier."

I entirely share her sentiment.

* Anonymous author, The Saturday Evening Gazette, March 26, 1865, Harriet Hosmer Papers, Watertown Public Library, Watertown, MA.

** On Harriet Hosmer and Zenobia-in-Chains, see my blog posts Zenobia Lost and Found (10/07/09), The Huntington Makes Space -- for Zenobia (06/06/09).

*** Published by the book division of Zingmagazine, the SoHo-based art magazine  for contemporary/alternative  art projects.  Cronin will be having a solo museum exhibition in Rome (Italy) at  the Musei Capitolini, Centrale Montemartini Museo, opening October 2013.

The primary source is, of course, Patricia Cronin's The Zenobia Scandal, with most of the quotations in italics coming from that book. In addition to the blog posts listed in note **, sources include Alison Yarrington, "'Made in Italy': Sculpture and the staging of National Identities of the International Exhibition of 1862." In (M. Pfister - R. Hertel, eds.) Performing National Identity: Anglo-Italian Cultural Transactions. Amsterdam-New York (2008) 75-99.


Top: Zenobia-in-Chains, marble, 6 ft 10 in (208 cm).  Photo credit: The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Purchased with the Virginia Steele Scott Acquisition fund for American Art.  Object Number: 2007.26.

Upper left: Photograph (salted paper print; photographer unknown) of Harriet Hosmer (ca. 1855).  Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Object number: NPG.84.150.

Next left: Portrait (oil on canvas) of Harriet Hosmer dressed in riding clothes (1857) by Sir William Boxall. Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Object number: NPG.95.6

Centre: Hosmer with her Italian workmen (1861).  Photo credit: The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

Below left: Cover of The Zenobia Scandal: A Meditation on Male Jealousy by Patricia Cronin (2013). Publisher zingmagazine.

Below centre: Close-up of legend on the pedestal of ZenobiaHarriet Hosmer carved me in Rome 

Below left: Hosmer on ladder in her Rome studio with commissioned statue of Thomas Hart Benton (ca. 1860-1862); statue erected in St. Louis in 1868.  Photographer:  Mariannecci.  Photo credit: The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University


  1. She's beautiful! Where was this 7 ft tall beauty hidden? I'm glad she's found and this story is being told. This post makes me happy :)

  2. Wonderful post--thrilled to learn about both the artist and the magnificent sculpture.

  3. Dear Dr.Weingarten,

    I am overjoyed to have stumbled across your web-site, and shall order a copy of your book as soon as possible. The reason I am so glad to have happened upon your page and book is because I am an archæologist myself, but nothing like your calibre, I’m just starting my first archæology module this week (OU A251). I am intrigued by Zenobia, and have been since the In Our Time episode on her. I am currently researching and writing a play based on her life. It is a labour of love, and I would very much appreciate it, if you could find the time to pick out any historical errors or chronological flaws in the work.

    You can find it here:

    Yours Hopefully,



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