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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Progressive Circle of American Women Sculptors in the Nineteenth Century

Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month-long blog-a-thon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.

A circle of American women sculptors achieved recognition during the nineteenth century in the United States and abroad, receiving commissions for public sculpture and patronage from private parties. Among these artists, (Mary) Edmonia Lewis, Vinnie Ream Hoxie, Harriet Goodhue Hosmer, and Sarah Fisher (Clampitt) Ames were particularly notable. Trained in the neoclassical style, these American sculptors were drawn to Rome, where they studied and were inspired by the ancient classical art and international art community. In turn, they established studios, convenient to both Italian craftsmen who could serve as assistants and to marble stone quarries. Women sculptors were welcomed into Rome’s expatriate community, which in the 1850s included nearly forty active American artists, both male and female. The artists often held open houses at their studios, frequented by visitors to the city, including Ulysses S. Grant, Frederick Douglass, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, all of whom Edmonia Lewis portrayed during their stay.

Harriet Goodhue Hosmer (1830–1908) by Sir William Boxall (1800–1879), oil on canvas, 1857. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (NPG.95.6)
 This first group of American women sculptors gathered around the popular artist Harriet Goodhue Hosmer, who had moved to Rome in 1852. The author Henry James referred to this artistic group as “a white marmorean flock,” a term that did not recognize the individuality of these talented women from varied social and economic backgrounds. Other expatriate female artists belonging to this circle were Louisa Lander, Anne Whitney, Emma Stebbins, Margaret Foley, and Florence Freeman. In 1860, Hosmer received the distinction of a commission by the state of Missouri to create the colossal bronze statue of Thomas Hart Benton, completed in 1868 for Lafayette Park in Saint Louis. In December 1864, Hosmer published an article titled the “Process of Sculpture” for the Atlantic Monthly to counter critics who attributed her success to the work of her craftsmen. Edmonia Lewis was an exception among the sculptors of her generation in Rome, since she rarely relied on Italian craftsmen and created most of her artwork by herself. Her method of independent work was based on limited funds and her belief in retaining the originality of her sculpture.

Edmonia Lewis (1844–after 1909) by Henry Rocher (1824–?), albumen silver print, c. 1870. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (NPG.94.95)
Artists who lived abroad also maintained cultural and political ties with the United States, returning for visits and commissions. Some eventually returned to settle in America.  Edmonia Lewis was the first recognized professional African American female sculptor. She created sculptures of the leading figures of the abolitionist and suffragist groups and of Civil War heroes, such as John Brown, Maria Weston Chapman, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Wendell Phillips, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, Charles Sumner, and Anna Quincy Waterson. Sculptor Sarah Fisher Ames was an antislavery advocate and a nurse, responsible for a temporary hospital established in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War. Through her activities, she met Abraham Lincoln, which likely led to formal sittings with him, where she made sketches and possibly modeled his features. She created at least five busts of the president. In 1868, the Joint Committee on the Library purchased Ames’s marble Lincoln bust for the U.S. Capitol; institutions in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania acquired the remaining busts. Ames later created a sculpted bust of Ulysses S. Grant, which was exhibited at the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition.

Vinnie Ream Hoxie (1847?–1914) by an unidentified artist, melainotype, c. 1875. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (NPG.78.112)
Vinnie Ream Hoxie also created a series of portraits of President Lincoln. In 1866 the secretary of the interior commissioned her to create a full-length marble statue of the late president, which was installed in the Capitol Rotunda in 1871. She had previously created a bust of Lincoln from a life sitting in Washington. Her selection for the commission was a result of a heated debate in the Congress. Her opponents were critical of her youth and inexperience. Sarah Fisher Ames also made a bust of Lincoln that received favorable comments. Both works are testimonies of these talented artists’ interpretation of Lincoln as a leader and as an important symbol of freedom. Each portrayed Lincoln in a neoclassical style, emphasizing his humanity and solemnity of purpose. They were the first sculptors to create official commemorative images of him for the U.S. Capitol, representing the principles of the newly united nation. Hoxie also created statues of Samuel Jordan Kirkwood and Sequoyah for the Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection.

Ames, Lewis, Hoxie, and Hosmer all exhibited their sculptures at the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, which brought them further recognition. At times, this circle of women sculptors faced criticism from the public and male artists. They had to maintain a fine balance from what was expected of a Victorian woman in her dedication to family and home and their ambitions to compete in a male profession. However, this group of progressive women broke new ground for the next generation of female artists, including Anna Hyatt Huntington, Malvina Hoffman, Evelyn Longman, and Bessie Potter Vonnoh.

In 1966, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery founded the Catalog of American Portraits (CAP), a national portrait archives of historically significant subjects and artists from the colonial period to current times. The public is welcome to access the online portrait search program from the museum website of over 100,000 records. The CAP program can be reviewed at the following National Portrait Gallery website:

Patricia H. Svoboda, Research Coordinator

Tolles, Thayer. “American Women Sculptors.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–10.
Nichols, Kathleen L. “International Women Sculptors: 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and Exposition.” Posted 2002; updated 2015.

Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) by Sarah Fisher Ames (1817–1901) marble, 1868. U.S. Capitol, Washington, DC (21.0013.000).

Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) by Vinnie Ream Hoxie (1847?–1914), marble, 1871. U.S. Capitol, Washington, DC.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) by Edmonia Lewis (1844–after 1909), marble, 1871. Harvard University Portrait Collection, Cambridge (S52).

Thomas Hart Benton (1782–1858) by Harriet Goodhue Hosmer (1830–1908), bronze, 1868. Lafayette Park, Saint Louis.

Buick, Kirsten Pai. “Mary Edmonia Lewis: The Biography of a Career, 1859–1876.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, 1999.

Dabakis, Melissa. A Sisterhood of Sculptors: American Artists in Nineteenth-Century Rome. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014.

James, Edward T. et al. Notable American Women, 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Weimann, Jeanne Madeline. Introduction by Anita Miller. The Fair Women. Chicago: Academy Chicago, 1981.

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