Some years ago, in an art store in Boston, a crowd of persons stood
gazing intently upon a famous piece of statuary. The red curtains were
drawn aside, and the white marble seemed almost to speak. A group of
girls stood together, and looked on in rapt admiration. One of them
said, "Just to think that a woman did it!"
"It makes me proud and glad," said another.
"Who is Harriet Hosmer?" said a third. "I wish I knew about her."
And then one of us, who had stolen all the hours she could get from
school life to read art books from the Hartford Athenaeum, and kept
crude statues, made by herself from chalk and plaster, secreted in her
room, told all she had read about the brilliant author of "Zenobia."
The statue was seven feet high, queenly in pose and face, yet delicate
and beautiful, with the thoughts which genius had wrought in it.
The left arm supported the elegant drapery, while the right hung
listlessly by her side, both wrists chained; the captive of
the Emperor Aurelian. Since that time, I have looked upon other
masterpieces in all the great galleries of Europe, but perhaps none
have ever made a stronger impression upon me than "Zenobia," in those
And who was the artist of whom we girls were so proud? Born in
Watertown, Mass., Oct. 9, 1830, Harriet Hosmer came into the welcome
home of a leading physician, and a delicate mother, who soon died
of consumption. Dr. Hosmer had also buried his only child besides
Harriet, with the same disease, and he determined that this girl
should live in sunshine and air, that he might save her if possible.
He used to say, "There is a whole life-time for the education of
the mind, but the body develops in a few years; and during that time
nothing should be allowed to interfere with its free and healthy
As soon as the child was large enough, she was given a pet dog, which
she decked with ribbons and bells. Then, as the Charles River flowed
past their house, a boat was provided, and she was allowed to row at
will. A Venetian gondola was also built for her, with silver prow and
velvet cushions. "Too much spoiling--too much spoiling," said some
of the neighbors; but Dr. Hosmer knew that he was keeping his little
daughter on the earth instead of heaven.
A gun was now purchased, and the girl became an admirable marksman.
Her room was a perfect museum. Here were birds, bats, beetles, snakes,
and toads; some dissected, some preserved in spirits, and others
stuffed, all gathered and prepared by her own hands. Now she made an
inkstand from the egg of a sea-gull and the body of a kingfisher; now
she climbed to the top of a tree and brought down a crow's nest. She
could walk miles upon miles with no fatigue. She grew up like a boy,
which is only another way of saying that she grew up healthy and
strong physically. Probably polite society was shocked at Dr. Hosmer's
methods. Would that there were many such fathers and mothers, that we
might have a vigorous race of women, and consequently, a vigorous race
When Harriet tired of books,--for she was an eager reader,--she found
delight in a clay-pit in the garden, where she molded horses and dogs
to her heart's content. Unused to restraint, she did not like
the first school at which she was placed, the principal, the
brother-in-law of Nathaniel Hawthorne, writing to her father that he
"could do nothing with her."
She was then taken to Mrs. Sedgwick, who kept a famous school at
Lenox, Berkshire County. She received "happy Hatty," as she was
called, with the remark, "I have a reputation for training wild
colts, and I will try this one." And the wise woman succeeded. She won
Harriet's confidence, not by the ten thousand times repeated "don't,"
which so many children hear in home and school, till life seems a
prison-pen. She let her run wild, guiding her all the time with so
much tact, that the girl scarcely knew she was guided at all. Blessed
tact! How many thousands of young people are ruined for lack of it!
She remained here three years. Mrs. Sedgwick says, "She was the most
difficult pupil to manage I ever had, but I think I never had one in
whom I took so deep an interest, and whom I learned to love so well."
About this time, not being quite as well as usual, Dr. Hosmer engaged
a physician of, large practice to visit his daughter. The busy man
could not be regular, which sadly interfered with Harriet's boating
and driving. Complaining one day that it spoiled her pleasure, he
said, "If I am alive, I will be here," naming the day and hour.
"Then if you are not here, I am to conclude that you are dead," was
As he did not come, Harriet drove to the newspaper offices in Boston
that afternoon, and the next morning the community was startled to
read of Dr. ----'s sudden death. Friends hastened to the house, and
messages of condolence came pouring in. It is probable that he was
more punctual after this.
On Harriet's return from Lenox, she began to take lessons in drawing,
modeling, and anatomical studies, in Boston, frequently walking from
home and back, a distance of fourteen miles. Feeling the need of a
thorough course in anatomy, she applied to the Boston Medical School
for admittance, and was refused because of her sex. The Medical
College of St. Louis proved itself broader, glad to encourage talent
wherever found, and received her.
Professor McDowell, under whom the artists Powers and Clevenger
studied anatomy, spared no pains to give her every advantage, while
the students were uniformly courteous. "I remember him," says Miss
Hosmer, "with great affection and gratitude as being a most thorough
and patient teacher, as well as at all times a good, kind friend."
In testimony of her appreciation, she cut, from a bust of Professor
McDowell by Clevenger, a life-size medallion in marble, now treasured
in the college museum.
While in St. Louis she made her home with the family of Wayman Crow,
Esq., whose daughter had been her companion at Lenox. This gentleman
proved himself a constant and encouraging friend, ordering her first
statue from Rome, and helping in a thousand ways a girl who had chosen
for herself an unusual work in life.
After completing her studies she made a trip to New Orleans, and then
North to the Falls of St. Anthony, smoking the pipe of peace with
the chief of the Dakota Indians, exploring lead mines in Dubuque, and
scaling a high mountain that was soon after named for her. Did the
wealthy girl go alone on these journeys? Yes. As a rule, no harm comes
to a young woman who conducts herself with becoming reserve with men.
Flirts usually are paid in their own coin.
On her return home, Dr. Hosmer fitted up a studio for his daughter,
and her first work was to copy from the antique. Then she cut Canova's
"Napoleon" in marble for her father, doing all the work, that he
might especially value the gift. Her next statue was an ideal bust of
Hesper, "with," said Lydia Maria Child, "the face of a lovely maiden
gently falling asleep with the sound of distant music. Her hair is
gracefully arranged, and intertwined with capsules of the poppy. A
star shines on her forehead, and under her breast lies the crescent
moon. The swell of the cheeks and the bust is like pure, young,
healthy flesh, and the muscles of the beautiful mouth so delicately
cut, it seems like a thing that breathes. She did every stroke of the
work with her own small hands, except knocking off the corners of the
block of marble. She employed a man to do that; but as he was unused
to work for sculptors, she did not venture to have him approach within
several inches of the surface she intended to cut. Slight girl as she
was, she wielded for eight or ten hours a day a leaden mallet
weighing four pounds and a half. Had it not been for the strength and
flexibility of muscle acquired by rowing and other athletic exercises,
such arduous labor would have been impossible."
After "Hesper" was completed, she said to her father, "I am ready to
go to Rome."
"You shall go, my child, this very autumn," was the response.
He would, of course, miss the genial companionship of his only child,
but her welfare was to be consulted rather than his own. When autumn
came, she rode on horseback to Wayland to say good-bye to Mrs. Child.
"Shall you never be homesick for your museum-parlor in Watertown? Can
you be contented in a foreign land?"
"I can be happy anywhere," said Miss Hosmer, "with good health and a
bit of marble."
Late in the fall Dr. Hosmer and his daughter started for Europe,
reaching Rome Nov. 12, 1852. She had greatly desired to study under
John Gibson, the leading English sculptor, but he had taken young
women into his studio who in a short time became discouraged or showed
themselves afraid of hard work, and he feared Miss Hosmer might be of
the same useless type.
When the photographs of "Hesper" were placed before him by an artist
friend of the Hosmers, he looked at them carefully, and said, "Send
the young lady to me, and whatever I know, and can teach her, she
shall learn." He gave Miss Hosmer an upstairs room in his studio, and
here for seven years she worked with delight, honored and encouraged
by her noble teacher. She wrote to her friends: "The dearest wish of
my heart is gratified in that I am acknowledged by Gibson as a pupil.
He has been resident in Rome thirty-four years, and leads the van. I
am greatly in luck. He has just finished the model of the statue of
the queen; and as his room is vacant, he permits me to use it, and I
am now in his own studio. I have also a little room for work which was
formerly occupied by Canova, and perhaps inspiration may be drawn from
The first work which she copied, to show Gibson whether she had
correctness of eye and proper knowledge, was the Venus of Milo. When
nearly finished, the iron which supported the clay snapped, and the
figure lay spoiled upon the floor. She did not shrink nor cry, but
immediately went to work cheerfully to shape it over again. This
conduct Mr. Gibson greatly admired, and made up his mind to assist her
all he could.
After this she copied the "Cupid" of Praxitiles and Tasso from the
British Museum. Her first original work was Daphne, the beautiful
girl whom Apollo loved, and who, rather than accept his addresses, was
changed into laurel by the gods. Apollo crowned his head with laurel,
and made the flower sacred to himself forever.
Next, Miss Hosmer produced "Medusa," famed for her beautiful hair,
which Minerva turned into serpents because Neptune loved her.
According to Grecian mythology, Perseus made himself immortal by
conquering Medusa, whose head he cut off, and the blood dripping from
it filled Africa with snakes. Miss Hosmer represents the beautiful
maiden, when she finds, with horror, that her hair is turning into
Needing a real snake for her work, Miss Hosmer sent a man into the
suburbs to bring her one alive. When it was obtained, she chloroformed
it till she had made a cast, keeping it in plaster for three hours and
a half. Then, instead of killing it, like a true-hearted woman, as she
is, she sent it back into the country, glad to regain its liberty.
"Daphne" and "Medusa" were both exhibited in Boston the following
year, 1853, and were much praised. Mr. Gibson said: "The power of
imitating the roundness and softness of flesh, he had never
seen surpassed." Rauch, the great Prussian, whose mausoleum at
Charlottenburg of the beautiful queen Louise can never be forgotten,
gave Miss Hosmer high praise.
Two years later she completed "Oenone," made for Mr. Crow of St.
Louis. It is the full-length figure of the beautiful nymph of Mount
Ida. The story is a familiar one. Before the birth of Paris, the son
of Priam, it was foretold that he by his imprudence should cause
the destruction of Troy. His father gave orders for him to be put to
death, but possibly through the fondness of his mother, he was spared,
and carried to Mount Ida, where he was brought up by the shepherds,
and finally married Oenone. In time he became known to his family,
who forgot the prophecy and cordially received him. For a decision in
favor of Venus he was promised the most beautiful woman in the world
for his wife. Forgetting Oenone, he fell in love with the beautiful
Helen, already the wife of Menelaus, and persuaded her to fly with him
to Troy, to his father's court. War resulted. When he found himself
dying of his wounds, he fled to Oenone for help, but died just as
he came into her presence. She bathed the body with her tears, and
stabbed herself to the heart, a very foolish act for so faithless a
man. Miss Hosmer represents her as a beautiful shepherdess, bowed with
grief from her desertion.
This work was so much liked in America, that the St. Louis Mercantile
Library made a liberal offer for some other statue. Accordingly, two
years after, "Beatrice Cenci" was sent. The noble girl lies asleep,
the night before her execution, after the terrible torture. "It was,"
says Mrs. Child, "the sleep of a body worn out with the wretchedness
of the soul. On that innocent face suffering had left its traces. The
arm that had been tossing in the grief tempest, had fallen heavily,
too weary to change itself into a more easy position. Those large
eyes, now so closely veiled by their swollen lids, had evidently wept
till the fountain of tears was dry. That lovely mouth was still the
open portal of a sigh, which the mastery of sleep had left no time to
To make this natural, the sculptor caused several models to go to
sleep in her studio, that she might study them. Gibson is said to have
remarked upon seeing this, "I can teach her nothing." This was also
exhibited in London and in several American cities.
For three years she had worked continuously, not leaving Rome even in
the hot, unhealthy summers. She had said, "I will not be an amateur; I
will work as if I had to earn my daily bread." However, as her health
seemed somewhat impaired, at her father's earnest wish, she had
decided to go to England for the season. Her trunks were packed, and
she was ready to start, when lo! a message came that Dr. Hosmer had
lost his property, that he could send her no more money, and suggested
that she return home at once.
At first she seemed overwhelmed; then she said firmly, "I cannot go
back, and give up my art." Her trunks were at once unpacked and a
cheap room rented. Her handsome horse and saddle were sold, and she
was now to work indeed "as if she earned her daily bread."
By a strange freak of human nature, by which we sometimes do our most
humorous work when we are saddest, Miss Hosmer produced now in her
sorrow her fun-loving "Puck." It represents a child about four years
old seated on a toadstool which breaks beneath him. The left hand
confines a lizard, while the right holds a beetle. The legs are
crossed, and the great toe of the right foot turns up. The whole
is full of merriment. The Crown Princess of Germany, on seeing it,
exclaimed, "Oh, Miss Hosmer, you have such a talent for toes!" Very
true, for this statue, with the several copies made from it, brought
her thirty thousand dollars! The Prince of Wales has a copy, the
Duke of Hamilton also, and it has gone even to Australia and the West
Indies. A companion piece is the "Will-o'-the-wisp."
About this time the lovely sixteen-year-old daughter of Madam
Falconnet died at Rome, and for her monument in the Catholic church
of San Andrea del Fratte, Miss Hosmer produced an exquisite figure
resting upon a sarcophagus. Layard, the explorer of Babylon and
Nineveh, wrote to Madam Falconnet: "I scarcely remember to have seen
a monument which more completely commanded my sympathy and more deeply
interested me. I really know of none, of modern days, which I would
rather have placed over the remains of one who had been dear to me."
Miss Hosmer also modeled a fountain from the story of Hylas. The
lower basin contains dolphins spouting jets, while in the upper basin,
supported by swans, the youth Hylas stands, surrounded by the nymphs
who admire his beauty, and who eventually draw him into the water,
where he is drowned.
Miss Hosmer returned to America in 1857, five years after her
departure. She was still young, twenty-seven, vivacious, hopeful, not
wearied from her hard work, and famous. While here she determined upon
a statue of Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, and read much concerning her
and her times. She had touched fiction and poetry; now she would
attempt history. She could scarcely have chosen a more heroic or
pathetic subject. The brave leader of a brave people, a skilful
warrior, marching at the head of her troops, now on foot, and now on
horseback, beautiful in face, and cultured in mind, acquainted with
Latin, Greek, Syriac, and Egyptian, finally captured by Aurelian, and
borne through the streets of Rome, adorning his triumphal procession.
After Miss Hosmer's return to Rome, she worked on "Zenobia" with
energy and enthusiasm, as she molded the clay, and then the plaster.
When brought to this country, it awakened the greatest interest;
crowds gathered to see it. In Chicago it was exhibited at the
Sanitary Fair in behalf of the soldiers. Whittier said: "It very fully
expresses my conception of what historical sculpture should be. It
tells its whole proud and melancholy story. In looking at it, I felt
that the artist had been as truly serving her country while working
out her magnificent design abroad, as our soldiers in the field, and
our public officers in their departments." From its exhibition Miss
Hosmer received five thousand dollars. It was purchased by Mr. A.W.
Griswold, of New York. So great a work was the statue considered in
London, that some of the papers declared Gibson to be its author. Miss
Hosmer at once began suits for libel, and retractions were speedily
In 1860 Miss Hosmer again visited America, to see her father, who
was seriously ill. How proud Dr. Hosmer must have been of his gifted
daughter now that her fame was in two hemispheres! Surely he had not
"spoiled" her. She could now spend for him as he had spent for her in
her childhood. While here, she received a commission from St. Louis
for a bronze portrait-statue of Missouri's famous statesman, Thomas
Hart Benton. The world wondered if she could bring out of the marble a
man with all his strength and dignity, as she had a woman with all her
grace and nobility.
She visited St. Louis, to examine portraits and mementos of Colonel
Benton, and then hastened across the ocean to her work. The next year
a photograph of the model was sent to the friends, and the likeness
pronounced good. The statue was cast at the great royal foundry at
Munich, and in due time shipped to this country. May 27, 1868, it was
unveiled in Lafayette Park, in the presence of an immense concourse of
people, the daughter, Mrs. John C. Fremont, removing the covering. The
statue is ten feet high, and weighs three and one-half tons. It rests
on a granite pedestal, ten feet square, the whole being twenty-two
feet square. On the west side of the pedestal are the words from
Colonel Benton's famous speech on the Pacific Railroad, "There is the
East--there is India." Both press and people were heartily pleased
with this statue, for which Miss Hosmer received ten thousand dollars,
the whole costing thirty thousand.
She was now in the midst of busy and successful work. Orders crowded
upon her. Her "Sleeping Faun," which was exhibited at the Dublin
Exhibition in 1865, was sold on the day of opening for five thousand
dollars, to Sir Benjamin Guinness. Some discussion having arisen about
the sale, he offered ten thousand, saying, that if money could buy it,
he would possess it. Miss Hosmer, however, would receive only the five
thousand. The faun is represented reclining against the trunk of a
tree, partly draped in the spoils of a tiger. A little faun, with
mischievous look, is binding the faun to the tree with the tiger-skin.
The newspapers were enthusiastic about the work.
The _London Times_ said: "In the groups of statues are many works of
exquisite beauty, but there is one which at once arrests attention and
extorts admiration. It is a curious fact that amid all the statues in
this court, contributed by the natives of lands in which the fine arts
were naturalized thousands of years ago, one of the finest should be
the production of an American artist." The French _Galignani_ said,
"The gem of the classical school, in its nobler style of composition,
is due to an American lady, Miss Hosmer." The _London Art Journal_
said, "The works of Miss Hosmer, Hiram Powers, and others we might
name, have placed American on a level with the best modern sculptors
of Europe." This work was repeated for the Prince of Wales and for
Lady Ashburton, of England.
Not long ago I visited the studio of Miss Hosmer in the Via Margutta,
at Rome, and saw her numerous works, many of them still unfinished.
Here an arm seemed just reaching out from the rough block of marble;
here a sweet face seemed like Pygmalion's statue, coming into life. In
the centre of the studio was the "Siren Fountain," executed for Lady
Marion Alford. A siren sits in the upper basin and sings to the music
of her lute. Three little cupids sit on dolphins, and listen to her
For some years Miss Hosmer has been preparing a golden gateway for an
art gallery at Ashridge Hall, England, ordered by Earl Brownlow. These
gates, seventeen feet high, are covered with bas-reliefs representing
the Air, Earth, and Sea. The twelve hours of the night show "Aeolus
subduing the Winds," the "Descent of the Zephyrs," "Iris descending
with the Dew," "Night rising with the Stars," "The Rising Moon," "The
Hour's Sleep," "The Dreams Descend," "The Falling Star," "Phosphor and
Hesper," "The Hours Wake," "Aurora Veils the Stars," and "Morning."
More than eighty figures are in the nineteen bas-reliefs. Miss Hosmer
has done other important works, among them a statue of the beautiful
Queen of Naples, who was a frequent visitor to the artist's studio,
and several well-known monuments. With her girlish fondness for
machinery, she has given much thought to mechanics in these later
years, striving to find, like many another, the secret of producing
perpetual motion. She spends much of her time now in England. She is
still passionately fond of riding, the Empress of Austria, who owns
more horses than any woman in the world, declaring "that there was
nothing she looked forward to with more interest in Rome, than to see
Miss Hosmer ride."
Many of the closing years of the sculptor's long life were spent in
Rome, where she had a wide circle of eminent American and English
friends, among whom were Hawthorne, Thackeray, George Eliot, and the
Brownings. She made several discoveries in her work, one of which was
a process of hardening limestone so that it resembled marble. She
also wrote both prose and poetry, and would have been successful as
an author, if she had not given the bulk of her time to her beloved
After her long sojourn in Rome she spent several years in England,
executing important commissions, and then turned her face toward
America. In Watertown, where she was born, she again made her home;
and here she breathed her last, February 21, 1908, after an illness of
three weeks. She was in her seventy-eighth year. By her long life of
earnest work and self-reliant purpose, coupled with her high gift, she
has made for herself an abiding place in the history of art.