How to Confess Your Feelings
Sure, confessing your feelings for your friend doesn’t always work out, but if you’re the charming, confident tomboy sculptress Harriet Hosmer, potentially awkward situations have a way of shaking out in your favor.
A shameless flirt, Harriet was adept at turning on the charm and humor to attract not only friends and romantic partners, but also patrons and benefactors. She killed it at networking, drawing around her an impressive and colorful mix of childhood pals, actresses, writers, reformers and suffragists who could support her, if not financially, then emotionally and, perhaps more importantly, by spreading news of her general awesomeness to potential clients. This woman was a PR machine.
Her flirtatious behavior -- and her loud claims of celibacy -- were also a shield, however, against deeper questions about her sexuality.
Victorians admittedly had different standards for female friendships. They were far less afraid of behavior that in later decades would come to be shunned as “homoerotic,” and women were comfortable expressing their platonic love for one another in ways that might appear romantic to Us Weekly.
Expected to fulfill feminine roles in their domestic spheres away from men and generally considered asexual, women were one another’s earliest sources of intimacy, essentially practicing femininity, romance and attachments with one another.
Working in the dirty, physical realm of sculpture -- and unmarried, no less! -- perhaps Harriet felt claiming to be a celibate flirt was a safe way to walk the line between acceptable and unconventional gender roles of the time.
. . .
Though born into a prominent middle-class family in 1830, Harriet had been raised outside the norm. After her brothers and mother, Sarah, died from tuberculosis, her father, Hiram, threw young Harriet and older sister Helen into hikes, hunts, swimming and rowing to build up their physical strength and health, even taking them out of school some days in favor of horseback rides.
Harriet thrived under her father’s coaching, but in 1842 Helen also succumbed to tuberculosis. Left alone, Hiram and Harriet worked even harder at their strength-building regimen, and during her time out at the river, Harriet started molding animals from clay she dug up along the bank.
As she grew up, it was clear Harriet was an outgoing, witty prankster. Her father shipped her off to the prestigious Sedgwick School, which was run by Elizabeth Buckminster Dwight Sedgwick, a woman determined that her students should learn to think for themselves.
Rather than being suppressed, Harriet blossomed in that environment into a popular, funny young woman. She found love in intimate bestieships and inspiration in the famous folks who passed through town, including actress Fanny Kemble, politician Daniel Webster, and writers Washington Irving and Catharine Sedgwick (Elizabeth’s internationally known and unmarried sis-in-law), the latter of whom took particular interest in Harriet.
When she graduated, Harriet considered pursuing both writing and acting but opted instead for sculpture -- a masculine pursuit that required physical strength and being OK with getting your hands dirty. Clearly, Harriet was set.
. . .
She arrived in Rome in November 1852 at 22 years old. By 1857, The New York Times was already singing her praises, and in 1865, her most famous work, Zenobia in Chains, drew thousands to a Boston gallery. Harriet’s Zenobia, the enslaved queen of Palmyra, was not depicted as cowering or cowed. Instead, Hatty moulded a powerful woman who, despite her chains, strode forward, fully clothed and bound but determined.
While Harriet’s work was astounding picky critics and enthralled masses alike, as a woman in a traditionally male role, she had to endure claims that her male stonecutters did all her work. Undaunted, Harriet pressed on, sending letters to her BFF Cornelia Crow’s deep-pocketed father, one of her earliest benefactors, explaining (and reassuring him) how deeply committed she was to her art -- and that her chastity was evidence of her dedication.
In reality, Harriet had endless dalliances with women, but few deep romances. That is, until a stranger walked into her Rome studio one spring day in 1867.
At the sight of wealthy noblewoman Louisa, Lady Ashburton (aka Louisa Caroline Stewart-Mackenzie Baring), the usually quick-witted artist was stunned into silence, struck by the sight of the 40-year-old with the dark hair, dark eyes and dramatic brows who’d stopped by on the advice of a mutual friend. Recently widowed by her much older baron husband, whom she’d married after her own fair share of lady loves, Lou had thousands of acres of land, a few homes, endless piles of money and an itch to spend it on art.
During their first meeting, the conversation hewed to safe topics of mutual friends and art. At the studio, Louisa had the chance to see Harriet’s in-progress work, completed projects and replicas of some of her more famous pieces. Right then and there, she commissioned several originals and a few replicas of Harriet’s existing work.
While Harriet would later recall it as “the most eventful day of my life,” the two maintained a professional relationship, with Louisa quickly becoming one of Harriet’s most generous patrons. Over the next year, they exchanged friendly letters, and Harriet even had a friendly stay with Louisa during a friendly jaunt through Great Britain.
And everything remained super friendly until the pair’s fateful road trip to central Italy in the summer of 1868. Harriet’s friends immediately knew something was up; although she downplayed it to BFF Cornelia, shrugging, “I’ve been off flirting,” the pair’s mutual connection Charlotte Cushman -- another of Harriet’s primary patrons -- told Cornelia it was clear Louisa “had carried off” ol’ Hatty’s heart.
Sure enough, Harriet wrote Louisa a letter spilling her guts once they got home: “Only a week ago, we left Rome good friends as we have always been and nothing more. But between that hour and this, something has come into our love which is to bind us.”
And so began the longest, most serious romantic relationship of Harriet’s life, and you better believe the letters that followed would be enough to make you gag. They were full of kisses and embraces and thee and thine -- but the two women rarely lived in the same place, and each pursued casual relationships with others when apart. It seems they both left a string of jealous women -- and in Louisa’s case, sometimes gentlemen -- in their wake, but Harriet assured her love and patron, “I was never jealous in my life, so I won’t begin at my age.”
. . .
More complicated than other lovers and flirtations, it seems, was money. Harriet was frequently dependent on her wealthy patroness and love of her life to keep her afloat, which Louisa was happy to do. In 1890, with Harriet’s career and support network shrinking after she’d struggled to complete several projects, Louisa commissioned a sculpture from her longtime love.
Harriet created a love letter in fountain form: a mermaid whose face bore a striking resemblance to Louisa’s, complete with an infant, representing Louisa’s daughter, snuggled in her tail.
Louisa’s support didn’t end after her death in 1903. She knew she had to keep her sculptress love in chisels and willed her 500 pounds annually. Harriet, heartbroken and deeply grateful, began discussing her true feelings openly in letters to friends, something she’d avoided for most of her life, beginning to refer to Louisa as “My Beloved,” rather than her formal title of “Lady Ashburton.”
After Harriet died in 1908, the ever-loyal Cornelia carefully crafted a biography that relegated Louisa to the category of “friend” -- not “hubby” or “sposa,” as Harriet and Louisa had frequently called each other.
But Cornelia was no bigot; rather, she was protecting her friend’s legacy and reputation at a time when attitudes were becoming less permissive around women’s same-sex relationships, especially those with even a trace of romantic interest. No longer were women dismissed out of hand as asexual, pure and chaste beings who couldn’t be intimate without a penis. Suddenly, “experts” in the medical and psychoanalytic fields were worried about sexual deviance and perversion, and women were expected to marry men and produce well-behaved citizens.
Regardless, Harriet left behind a legacy that’s hard to argue with: She was determined to live, love and create on her own terms, and she succeeded.
Dudes Hating on Lady Friendships Is Not New
In 1850s Rome, American expat sculptor Harriet Hosmer was at the center of a growing number of women artists, particularly sculptors, eschewing the gender norms and expectations that seemed set in stone in America. Women in Harriet’s circle included fellow sculptors Anne Whitney, who would maintain her professional momentum even as Hosmer’s own star dimmed, and Edmonia Lewis, the first African-American and Native American woman to achieve international fame as a sculptor, but who died in obscurity.
Not everyone appreciated women who lived outside their lane, especially as more women were pushing for suffrage and equal rights. Author Henry James proved to be a judgey jerk when he dismissed Harriet and the entire community of women sculptors in Rome as little more than squawking birds in his 1903 book William Wetmore Story and His Friends: From Letters, Diaries and Recollections. Granting that Harriet was talented, he still described her as “the most eminent member of that strange Sisterhood of American ‘lady sculptors’ who at one time settled upon the seven hills in a white marmorean flock.” Marmorean, FYI, meaning marblelike. Real sick burn, HenJim.
Worse, Henry shrugged off Lewis’s accomplishments, saying people were simply fascinated with the novelty of a black woman sculptor working with white marble. And, as if paving the way for future Twitter trolls, he claimed fellow lady sculptor Vinnie Ream had won a commission to create a statue of Abraham Lincoln only because she “shook her saucy curls in the lobby of the Capitol.” His dull wit stuck, however, condensing in the public’s mind this group of professional artists into a mass of marmorean weirdos rather than the talented, multilayered individuals they were.
Sources + further reading:
- Culkin, Kate. Harriet Hosmer: A Cultural Biography. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010.
- Lynch, Lindsay. "'The White Marmorean Flock': 19th Century Lady Sculptors in Rome." The Toast. Nov. 21, 2014.
- Musacchio, Jacqueline Marie. "Mapping the 'White, Marmorean Flock': Anne Whitney Abroad, 1867-1868." Nineteenth Century Art Worldwide. Vol. 13, Iss. 2. Autumn 2014.
- Rowe, John Carlos. "Hawthorne's Ghost in Henry James's Italy." In The New American Studies. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2002.
- Vicinus, Martha. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
- Vicinus, Martha. "Laocoöning in rome: harriet hosmer and romantic friendship." Women's Writing. Vol. 10, Iss. 2. 2003.