The "Ghosting" of Incest and Female Relations in Harriet Hosmer's Beatrice Cenci

By Fryd, Vivien Green | The Art Bulletin, June 2006 | Go to article overview

The "Ghosting" of Incest and Female Relations in Harriet Hosmer's Beatrice Cenci


Fryd, Vivien Green, The Art Bulletin


Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908) belonged to that group of expatriate American women sculptors in Rome whom Henry James dubbed "a white marmorean flock."1 These artists, like their male counterparts, created idealized Neoclassical works that immortalized didactic narratives and moral concepts in stone. Hosmer diverged from her colleagues of both sexes, however, by specializing in studies of heroic women whose deprivation, victimization, captivity, and/or impending death ultimately rendered them sympathetic.2 During her time in Rome, Hosmer produced several major works depicting such wronged historical or mythological females: Zenobia (1859, Fig. 1), the third-century queen of Palmyra captured by the Romans; Medusa (1854, Fig. 2), the woman of ravishing beauty turned into a monster by the jealous Athena; and Beatrice Cenci (1853-55, Fig. 9), a sixteenth-century Italian woman condemned to death by the Church for patricide, even though the father she killed had raped her. I focus primarily on the latter sculpture, derived in part from Percy Bysshe Shelley's verse play The Cenci (1819), which told the story of "national and universal interest," "incestuous passion," and "cruelty and violence." Beatrice Cenci, "after long and vain attempts to escape from what she considered a perpetual contamination both of body and mind," plotted with her stepmother, Lucretia, and her brother Giacomo to murder "their common tyrant"-Count Francesco Cenci. The Church accused, tortured, tried, and condemned all three, executing them in public on September 11, 1599.3

Viewed within the context of mid-nineteenth-century attitudes toward gender and sexuality, Hosmer's Beatrice Cenci reveals that the artist recognized ways in which texts about Beatrice Cenci "ghosted" her status as a victim of incestual rape. The sculpture's subject, patricide in retaliation for incest, as well as Cenci's heroism in light of her punishment, intersects with the artist's unconventional lifestyle and sexuality. These two subjects-intimate female relationships and patricide in retaliation for incestual rape-may seem to be separate strands. They form, however, a complex web, a nexus, that derives from society's containment and condemnation of sexuality, Hosmer's interest in unconventional behavior about normative sexuality, Cenci's radical striking back against patriarchal oppression in the form of her raping father, and the nineteenth-century women's movement, which centered on suffrage but also was concerned with altering the power relations between men and women. A "conspiracy of silence," as it were, infects both Hosmer's subject for the statue and her personal position; her covert handling of the incest theme is related to the covertness of her own identity and sexuality, and her nonnormative sexuality gave her a vantage point from which to consider another type of nonnormative sexuality: incest. Although some might not consider incest a form of sexuality, it is so for an incest survivor as well as the rapist, albeit perverse, illegal, and scarring for the victim.

Hosmer's sexuality and Cenci's murder of her father both imply a radical critique of patriarchal culture. Hosmer's life, the sculpture itself, and the literary sources for the sculpture all converge in the expression and repression of unconventional sexualities in the United States during the mid-nineteenth century. Hosmer is the object of patriarchal culture's disapproval, because of her lifestyle and sexuality, at the same time that she critiques that culture as an artist by choosing a model of problematic sexuality and retaliation for rape and incest.

In using the term "ghosting" to discuss incest, I borrow from Terry Castle, who asserts that same-sex female relationships have "been 'ghosted'-or made to seem invisible-by culture itself." It is a taboo, an "insidious and ascetical kind of denial" that results in "a silenced lesbian past."4 I apply the term to Hosmer's Beatrice Cenci, through which the artist addressed another sexual taboo: incest. …

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