Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Sculptor Theodora Alice Ruggles Kitson: "A Woman Genius"

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Sculptor Theodora Alice Ruggles Kitson: "A Woman Genius"

Article excerpt

This article takes its title from a phrase, "a revolt against nature: a woman genius," that art critic and writer Octave Mirbeau (1848-1917) used to describe French sculptor Camille Claudel (1864-1943). In the view of their contemporaries, the term was equally applicable to American sculptor Theodora Alice Ruggles Kitson (1871-1932) in both its positive and negative connotations.1 From very early in life, the label "genius," usually applied to a man and intended as a compliment, was used to describe Kitson. This characterization first appeared in print in 1890 in relation to her entries in the Paris Salon when she was a teen. Five years later in 1895, the twentyfour-year-old Kitson's talent was heralded again when a reporter for Harper's Weekly wrote, "Though one of the youngest women who are known through their work in the art world, Mrs. Kitson has had the most successful career of any woman who has undertaken the profession of sculpture."2 In 1893, at the age of twenty-two, Theo Kitson and her husband, Henry Hudson Kitson (1865-1947), were admitted as inaugural members to the National Sculpture Society, making Theo its first female member.3 A headline in 1902 in The Boston Globe praised Kitson as having "great genius," highlighting the fact that she was the "first of her sex to execute a soldier's monument."4

Kitson's famous memorial of the Spanish-American War, the Hiker (1906), became the icon of that conflict and was widely reproduced throughout the continental United States. Indeed, the war memorial genre became her specialty. One of forty artists who contributed art to the Vicksburg National Military Park, Kitson completed approximately three times more busts and relief portraits than the other sculptors and, until 2008, was the only woman artist represented in the national park.5 Throughout her lifetime, Kitson received honors, awards, commissions, and critical praise, evidence of the complimentary characterization of her "genius."

Yet in the context of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a "woman genius" was a complete aberration from the norm, both in Europe and in this country. A female with Kitson's prodigious talent was considered such a rarity that the label often had negative connotations: to many it represented a "revolt against nature."6 Nature, as it was understood at the time, had reserved genius for men and formed woman to work chiefly in the private, domestic sphere. Ironically, despite receiving numerous awards and commissions and being identified as a genius by her contemporaries, Kitson has not been included in the art historical "canon" of women sculptors. This article seeks to correct this neglect by exploring several of Kitson's key works.

Members of the commonly cited canon include: Margaret Foley (1820- 1877), Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908), Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907), and Vinnie Ream (1847-1914), among others. Although these women were older than Kitson, her contemporaries Anna Hyatt Huntington (1876-1973) and Harriet Frishmuth (1880-1980) are also regularly the subjects of art historical examination. Yet Kitson was equally successful and renowned during her lifetime. In fact, it could be argued that she surpassed these female artists, as well as many of her male contemporaries, in terms of her popularity with the general public for monumental sculpture.

Prospects for women sculptors had improved by the time Kitson began her career, but success for a woman artist was still elusive. In 1874, for example, Anne Whitney (1821-1915) competed for the Cambridge commission to create a statue of Senator Charles Sumner. Whitney submitted her entry anonymously and garnered the most votes for her proposal. However, when the committee discovered her gender, "after much debate (the judges) decided that it would not be proper for a woman to sculpt the figure-specifically the legs-of a man."7 Supporters of the young artist, however, provided Whitney with funds in 1900 to cast her bronze version of the abolitionist, which today is found in Harvard Square. …

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