08 March 2008

Zenobia is Back in America!

Zenobia in Chains, a monumental 7-foot marble statue, long assumed to be lost or destroyed, will go on public display for the first time in 123 years at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, California.

The Huntington paid 192,500 British pounds -- roughly $385,000 -- for the sculpture by the American artist Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908). Considered Hosmer's masterpiece, the statue resurfaced at Sotheby's in London in November after being rediscovered in a private collection more than a century after it had been last seen in public.

In contrast to typical mid-19th century 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:

"I honor every woman who has strength enough to step out of the beaten path when she feels that her walk lies in another."
Zenobia, for example, can easily be read in relation to the condition of 19th-century women, who were placed on a pedestal but simultaneously enslaved by harsh financial constraints that bound them to men.

When she produced the towering Zenobia in 1859, the work was met with disbelief that a woman created it. “Zenobia is one of the most famous — and controversial — objects produced during the ‘golden age’ of American classical sculpture," says John Murdoch, Director of the Huntington Art Collections. "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."

But what a woman!

The official version

Born in Watertown, Mass. in 1830, Hosmer studied anatomy at the Washington University Medical School in St. Louis and then travelled to Rome in 1852 to study with British sculptor John Gibson, a leading exponent of the neoclassical style (gossips later claimed that Gibson actually did Hosmer's work -- until she filed successful libel suits, which shut them up). She lived in Rome until a few years before her death. There she was associated with Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thorwaldsen, Flaxman, Thackeray, George Eliot, George Sand, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Hosmer slipped unobserved into a convent one night, wearing Robert Browning's trousers). After returning to America as a celebrated artist, Hosmer devoted a large part of her time trying to invent a perpetual motion machine and an artificial marble. She died at Watertown on the 21st of February 1908.

The real low-down

Hosmer never had any patience for the strict rules of decorum that regulated behaviour among young ladies in the polite circles of her day.
Here was a woman who , at the very outset of her life, refused to have her feet cramped by the little Chinese shoes which society places on us all and then misnames our feeble tottering, feminine grace.*
Instead, she was driven to work long hours in the studio, perfecting her art. While still living in Boston, her early sculpture caught the eye of Charlotte Cushman, one of the most famous American actresses of her day. Cushman -- whose performances impressed such luminaries as Walt Whitman ("the most intense acting ever felt on the Parks [Theatre] boards") -- was particularly admired for playing men's parts, a popular practice in the nineteenth-century theatre. Male attire, including tight breeches, displayed more of the woman's body to the audience than did the flowing gowns of female costumes; hence, the so-called 'breeches parts' appealed to male spectators -- and women, too. Throughout her career, Cushman received many fan letters from women who had been moved by the sight of the actress when she was playing a man making love to a woman.

Hosmer was moved, literally.

Cushman was preparing to retire from the stage and live in Rome. She took young Hosmer with her. The artist entered Cushman's inner circle, one of her household of 'jolly bachelor women'. At the time, Cushman was living with Matilda Hays, a novelist, journalist, and translator of the works of George Sand. There was no doubt about their relationship: Elizabeth Barrett Browning noted, "I understand that [Cushman] and Miss Hays have made vows of celibacy and of eternal attachment to each other -- they live together, dress alike, . . . it is a female marriage."

Hosmer quickly became a key figure in the Anglo-American flock of artistic migrants in Rome. A creative, intellectually exciting world further spiced by parties, theatricals, and balls. But all was not bliss in the 'jolly' household. Not with so many emancipated women running about. In 1854, Matilda Hays left Cushman for Harriet Hosmer. It didn't last (Hays went back to Cushman until a final bust up in 1857). Hosmer now had an intense relationship with the beautiful and wealthy Louisa Ashburton, a widowed Scottish noblewoman. This did last. The two shared finances and wrote intimate letters in which Hosmer called herself both "hubbie" and "wedded wife". In many letters, she spoke of her devotion and also jealousy at the thought of being replaced by another woman.

In 1858, Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife visited Hosmer at her studio in Rome, and the writer gave a telling description of her: “She had on a male shirt, collar, and cravat…. She was indeed very queer….”

I think we can take that as read.

After the Civil War, the shift in American taste away from neoclassical art made it more difficult for Hosmer to make a living as a sculptor. That may have been why she was dabbling with perpetual motion machines. By the time she died in 1908 at least one obituary expressed surprise that she was still alive. She left behind $ 2,500 in debts.

Make it up to her, Huntington!

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.**

* Quoted from the American writer Lydia Maria Child, one of Hosmer's devoted friends.

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

The photograph of Harriet Hosmer on ladder with her sculpture of Thomas Hart Benton (1782-1858), c.1860, is from the Bridgeman Art Library.


  1. Hola Judith! What a great post! I'm going to link it to Chess, Goddess and Everything blog asap (but probably not tonight, I'm pooped!)

    I've got the piece ready I promised you many months ago about chess and Persia - how do I get it to you? You can email me at jlnatty@yahoo.com

  2. Bravo! I've been contributing to the wikipedia article on Harriet Hosmer and have recently made some corrections regarding where her Zenobia (the original) was located. I had to settle on noting the location of a major copy only. Thanks to your blog I am now able to cite the location of the original as the Huntington.


  3. Anonymous17/8/10 10:02

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    very handy, thanx a lot for this artficle ....... Thisa is exactgly what I was looking for.

  4. Anonymous17/6/12 14:42

    I don’t ordinarily comment but I gotta admit thankyou for the post on this great one : D.


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