A Sisterhood of Sculptors. American Artists in Nineteenth-Century Rome

By Wrigley, Richard | The Sculpture Journal, September 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

A Sisterhood of Sculptors. American Artists in Nineteenth-Century Rome


Wrigley, Richard, The Sculpture Journal


Melissa Dabakis, A Sisterhood of Sculptors. American Artists in Nineteenth-Century Rome Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014, 304 pp., 100 b&w illustrations, 3 maps, ?24. ISBN 978-0-271-06220-4

The subject of this book is a fascinating example of the way that the status of the artist, in this case the sculptor, their identity, actions, character, are matters of critical interest and judgement. The working lives of the artists studied here were lived out in public, and they attracted criticism as much for their nonconformity to conventions of conduct as did their art for its technical achievements. These matters are given a further dimension by being located in specific environments - here, primarily Boston and Rome, places with elaborate channels of cultural commentary. The coherence of Sisterhood of Sculptors arises in part from the existence of a group of women sculptors who both shared circumstances of their formation in Boston, and their metier, with travel to and residence in Rome. Yet unlike some studies confined to Rome, which take its importance for granted, Dabakis's book sets out what might be called a long-distance context, and positions Rome, its social world, its artistic resources and its political conflicts, in relation to the making of existing American careers. Some of the artists dealt with here are relatively familiar - Harriet Hosmer, Edmonia Lewis (who died in Brook Green in 1907), Anne Whitney, Vinnie Ream - but Dabakis has gathered an extended group of less well-known figures: Emma Stebbins, Margaret Foley, Sarah Fisher Ames and Louise Lander. Dabakis is hardly the first to rebuke Henry James for his description of these artists as a 'white marmorean flock' in his biographical study of William Wetmore Story, but James's phrase did point to contemporary recognition of a notable constituency within the Roman art world. Story, a long-term resident in Rome and author of a much-reprinted guide to the city (which doubles as a chronicle of his changing opinion of its appearance as it was adapted to the new role of national capital), also tends to come over as a less than sympathetic actor in the narrative. In a sense, Dabakis plays up the novelty and critical advocacy of her exposition by citing such adversaries (Nathaniel Hawthorne also comes in for deserved rebuke). However, it is the clarity of exposition, the succession of carefully documented episodes within the lives and works of Dabakis's subjects, and the insistence on keeping the material aspects of sculpture-making tied to conscious choices as regards subjects, and their design, as well as their often contested reception, which creates an absorbing, fluent and impressive whole.

At the core of the book is a study of the ways in which these artists were aware of and involved in related political issues - women's rights, and particularly as they applied to artistic practice, the politics of race and its representation, and Italian nationalism. By adopting this approach, at once specific and expansive, Dabakis creates a narrative in which the histories of individual sculptures are shown to play a part within larger themes in the history of American art and of emancipation. Thus, it is not merely the striking phenomenon of a group of American women sculptors in nineteenth-century Rome - taking their place within the well-established sculptural community - which demands consideration, but rather the way they used their medium to participate in contemporary political debates. …

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