The Italian Presence in American Art, 1760-1860

By Irma B. Jaffe | Go to book overview

14. Creativity, Inspiration, and Scandal
Harriet Hosmer and Zenobia

CAROL ZASTOUPIL, Southern Methodist University

When Harriet Hosmer (Plate 121) traveled to Rome in 1852 to study sculpture, she joined a community of American artists who viewed Italy as a special place of inspiration. Hosmer was one of the first of the American women sculptors there and would become the most famous (Plate 122). 1 But at the same time as her reputation was growing, Hosmer's artistic integrity was challenged in a curious public debate in the early 1860s that encompassed not only her accomplishments, centering on her monumental work Zenobia (Plate 123) Of 1859, 2 but also the very nature of sculptural creation.

Hosmer grew up in Watertown, Massachusetts, not far from Boston. She was like many young American women who were attracted by a pervasive romantic vision of Italy that they found in novels, periodicals, and travel books of the day. By the 1820s, for example, The North American Review published articles on Italy in almost every issue. Sometimes mentioned was an 1807 romance-travel guide by Madame de Staël called Corinne, ou L'Italie, perhaps her best-known book. 3 The North American Review attributed its success in part to "the association of ancient greatness and glory, and the description of natural and artificial beauty with which they are accompanied." 4 But the minds of young women may have been captivated more by the book's heroine. Corinne was an inspired artist, an improvisatrice, famed for her ability to improvise on stage, simultaneously composing and performing. She represented the place of inspiration; even the title implied that she and Italy were one and the same, that the inspired person was symbolic of the place. This notion caused young idealists to flock to Italy, especially to Rome. They were not disappointed. Hosmer's earliest descriptions of Italy and Rome referred to the conducive atmosphere for creating art. She felt Rome was the only place to learn, and after only a few months there she knew it would have taken her ten times longer in America to do the same work. 5

Hosmer expressly selected Rome to study sculpture, 6 and she was among the first American sculptors to join the international art community there. One of its most respected leaders was John Gibson, an Englishman, who became her teacher. He was the remaining star of the classical movement once headed by Antonio Canova. Gibson had been Canova's student until his death in 1822; thereafter he had studied under the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorwaldsen, who was in Rome from 1791 to 1838. The American Horatio Greenough, who could be considered the pioneer American sculptor in Rome, had arrived in 1825 (he stayed two years, returned to America, then settled in Florence in 1829). but the greatest influx occurred in the 1850s, when both men and women from America arrived to study and set up studios. 7 in The Marble Faun of 1860, a novel set in Italy, Nathaniel Hawthorne noted that the artists in Rome were "numerous enough to create a congenial atmosphere" where they were not "isolated strangers." 8

Not all were friends. Hawthorne observed that there was a lack of "mutual affection" among the sculptors. He attributed this to competition among the artists for sales and patronage. "[A] sculptor," he wrote, "never has a favorable eye for any marble but his own." 9 Two factors escalated tension in the artistic circle after mid-century: the increased number of sculptors and a decline in orders. This decline represented a decided shift from the immense popularity of marble sculpture earlier in the century when the English had resumed the Grand Tour and were joined by the

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