Cover image for A Sisterhood of Sculptors: American Artists in Nineteenth-Century Rome By Melissa Dabakis

A Sisterhood of Sculptors

American Artists in Nineteenth-Century Rome

Melissa Dabakis

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$29.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06220-4

304 pages
9" × 10"
100 b&w illustrations/3 maps
2014

A Sisterhood of Sculptors

American Artists in Nineteenth-Century Rome

Melissa Dabakis

“Long awaited, A Sisterhood of Sculptors is a rich and satisfying account of that brave band of nineteenth-century Americans who defied Victorian conventions of womanhood to live in Italy as professional marble sculptors. Melissa Dabakis embeds these audacious women in the struggles for suffrage and the politics of race, as well as the pre-1876 taste and demand for large-scale neoclassical sculptures, rendering them inseparable from the larger forces of history that shaped and confined them.”

 

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This book made possible through support from the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Listen to Melissa Dabakis and A Sisterhood of Sculptors featured on the April 20th New Books in Gender Studies podcast!

This project is made possible through support from the Terra Foundation for American Art.

When Elizabeth Cady Stanton penned the Declaration of Sentiments for the first women’s rights convention, held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, she unleashed a powerful force in American society. In A Sisterhood of Sculptors, Melissa Dabakis outlines the conditions under which a group of American women artists adopted this egalitarian view of society and negotiated the gendered terrain of artistic production at home and abroad.

Between 1850 and 1876, a community of talented women sought creative refuge in Rome and developed successful professional careers as sculptors. Some of these women have become well known in art-historical circles: Harriet Hosmer, Edmonia Lewis, Anne Whitney, and Vinnie Ream. The reputations of others have remained, until now, buried in the historical record: Emma Stebbins, Margaret Foley, Sarah Fisher Ames, and Louisa Lander. At midcentury, they were among the first women artists to attain professional stature in the American art world while achieving international fame in Rome, London, and other cosmopolitan European cities. In their invention of modern womanhood, they served as models for a younger generation of women who adopted artistic careers in unprecedented numbers in the years following the Civil War.

At its core, A Sisterhood of Sculptors is concerned with the gendered nature of creativity and expatriation. Taking guidance from feminist theory, cultural geography, and expatriate and postcolonial studies, Dabakis provides a detailed investigation of the historical phenomenon of women’s artistic lives in Rome in the mid-nineteenth century. As an interdisciplinary examination of femininity and creativity, it provides models for viewing and interpreting nineteenth-century sculpture and for analyzing the gendered status of the artistic profession.

“Long awaited, A Sisterhood of Sculptors is a rich and satisfying account of that brave band of nineteenth-century Americans who defied Victorian conventions of womanhood to live in Italy as professional marble sculptors. Melissa Dabakis embeds these audacious women in the struggles for suffrage and the politics of race, as well as the pre-1876 taste and demand for large-scale neoclassical sculptures, rendering them inseparable from the larger forces of history that shaped and confined them.”
“Melissa Dabakis has written the book I've been longing to read. In the history of art, there has never been a book about the courageous first American female sculptors and their bold journey not just from Boston to Rome, but to becoming professional artists. Meticulously researched with perceptive insight that offers new analysis of neoclassical sculpture, this book examines how these artists transformed nationalist sculpture by injecting it with their suffragist and abolitionist views. It presents a fascinating account of the inherent complexities and contradictions of expatriate life in mid-nineteenth-century Italy, as well as a rigorous, fresh reading of how feminine propriety had to be negotiated with independence in a world where social conventions were constantly shifting on the eve of the Civil War and the unification of Italy. This groundbreaking book is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in the history of these women, the sheer audacity of their professional calling, and the creative authority of women.”
“[A Sisterhood of Sculptors] is a good example of how an author can blend scholarly research on multiple disciplines with clear, concise writing that is both informative and appealing to a wide audience. Drawing on personal records, correspondence, and previous scholarship on the topic, Dabakis adroitly balances social, cultural, and political history with vivid personal portraits of the artists. . . . The thoughtfully chosen photographic illustrations provide further evidence of each sculptor’s skills which equaled, if not rivaled, those of male sculptors of the era. The reader emerges with a clearer picture of each artist’s personality, as well as a greater understanding of their creative processes and of their significance to the history of American art.”
“Between 1850 and 1876, a group of women left the United States for Italy in order to pursue careers as neoclassical sculptors. In this lavishly illustrated, well-researched, and highly readable book, Dabakis builds on and synthesizes recent scholarship that has treated these artists . . . [and fleshes out] the politically charged atmosphere of Italy in the 19th century, when it was in the midst of a revolution. Additionally she builds a vital context for how the work of these artists also served as pointed and particular responses to issues at home, such as the Civil War, abolitionism, Reconstruction, and suffrage. As Dabakis elucidates, their work and their careers served as inspiration and models for a younger generation of women artists at a time when ‘genius’ was a quality reserved primarily for men.”
“Along with its predecessors, Sisterhood of Sculptors proves that neoclassicism is much more than first meets the twenty-first-century eye, and not only because atmospheric lighting made marble figurative sculpture look more sensuously fleshlike to nineteenth-century audiences than today’s viewers can appreciate, but because of the socially, politically, and geographically grounded circumstances of its artistic production. This rich and engagingly conveyed history gives the stories of these sculptors and their work new life.”
“Dabakis’ beautifully researched and illustrated academic book establishes the importance of American women artists in 19th-century Rome, where their dazzling accomplishments succeeded in momentarily overcoming the sexism, if not the racism, of their era.”
“This serious study of expatriate women artists in Rome has been a long time coming. A Sisterhood of Sculptors is articulate, thorough, and engrossing in its examination of the personal challenges and political pressures these artists met and overcame.”
“Offers a new contribution to the study of American artists working in international contexts, to the body of scholarship on American sculpture and its connections with political history, and to the discussion of gender in art history.”

Melissa Dabakis is Professor of Art History at Kenyon College. She is the author of Visualizing Labor in American Sculpture: Monuments, Manliness, and the Work Ethic, 1880-1935 (Cambridge University Press, 1999) and numerous articles on nineteenth- and twentieth-century American art. She has received grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the J. Paul Getty Foundation, the Smithsonian Institution, and the American Council of Learned Societies, and has served as a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome. She is the 2013-2014 Terra Foundation Senior Fellow in American Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Contents

List of Illustrations

Acknowledgments

Introduction

Part I: Feminine Professionalism in Boston and Rome

1 The Boston-Rome Nexus

2 Neoclassicism in Cosmopolitan Rome

3 “A Woman Artist Is an Object of Peculiar Odium”

Part II: Women Sculptors and the Politics of Rome

4 Rome in the Colonial Imagination

5 Reimagining Italy

Part III: The Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Suffrage Debates

6 Antislavery Sermons in Stone

7 Women Sculptors, Suffrage, and the Public Stage

Postscript

Notes

Selected Bibliography

Index

On a brilliant sunny day in the historical center of Rome, the fictional heroine Corinne is crowned poet laureate on the steps of the ancient Capitoline. The most famous woman in Rome, Corinne is lauded as a poetess, writer, improviser, and intellectual in Madame de Staël’s (Germaine Necker’s) popular novel Corinne, or Italy of 1807. Clad in a white tunic with an exotic turban wound round her head, the great beauty improvises verses while playing the lyre: “Italy, empire of the Sun; Italy, mistress of the world; cradle of literature; I salute you,” her performance begins. While paying homage to Italy and its talented poets, she is interrupted by a large crowd chanting, “Long live Corinne! Long live genius! Long live beauty!” As the novel opens, Corinne’s fulfilling life in Rome personifies an ideal of feminine creativity coveted by ambitious nineteenth-century Anglo-American women.

Rome had welcomed talented European and American women artists into its cultural fold since the late eighteenth century. It was also home to many famous literary and artistic institutions, like the Arcadian Academy, to which the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and de Staël earned membership. Located on the slopes of the Janiculum Hill in Rome, the Arcadians allowed women unprecedented creative authority. The Swiss history painter Angelika Kauffmann, a close colleague of Goethe’s, was invited to join the academy and eventually rose to leadership of the neoclassical school in Rome. Further, the Arcadians celebrated native Italian improvisatrice (female poetic improvisers), like Corilla Olimpica, upon whose life the fictional Corinne was based. Improvisatrice performed for literate Italian and foreign audiences through the mid–nineteenth century. Destinations of note for many Anglo-American visitors, these events were recorded in contemporary guidebooks with the specific dates and times of each performance carefully listed.

Spurred on by Rome’s embrace of feminine creativity, Anglo-American women were enthralled with the mythic territory inhabited by Corinne. The moniker “American Corinnes” described many talented women who traveled to Rome, such as the erudite writer and journalist Margaret Fuller, the young and beautiful sculptor Vinnie Ream, and the writer and painter Sophia Peabody Hawthorne. In her feminist epic Aurora Leigh of 1856, the British poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, an expatriate living in Italy, imagined her heroine in the mold of a modern Corinne. Chronicling their dreams and disappointments, adventures and struggles, this book focuses upon the talented women artists, writers, and social reformers who assembled in Rome in the mid–nineteenth century.

In absorbing the spirit of Corinne, a group of American women artists sought creative refuge in the Eternal City between 1850 and 1876. These neoclassical/realist sculptors developed successful professional careers in Rome, as they competed for and won public commissions, created ideal statuary (with mythological, historical, or biblical subjects), modeled portrait busts, and sold “fancy pieces” (garden sculpture and the like). This community of talented women included artists whose lives and works have become well known in art-historical circles: Harriet Hosmer (1830–1908), Edmonia Lewis (1846–1907), Anne Whitney (1821–1915), and Vinnie Ream (Hoxie) (1847–1914); and those whose reputations have remained (until now) buried in the historical record: Emma Stebbins (1815–1882), Margaret Foley (1820–1877), Sarah Fisher Ames (1817–1901), and Louisa Lander (1826–1923). At midcentury, they were among the first women artists to attain professional stature in the American art world while achieving international fame in Rome, London, and other cosmopolitan European cities. In the 1850s and 1860s, their independent lives charted new territory for feminine professionalism. In their invention of modern womanhood, these artists served as models for a younger generation of women who adopted artistic careers in unprecedented numbers in the years following the Civil War. Indeed, their extraordinary lives still resonate with meaning, as contemporary women are emboldened by their example to seek new challenges and achieve new successes.

The White Marmorean Flock

In 1903, Henry James immortalized this community of American women sculptors in Rome by characterizing them as “that strange sisterhood of American lady sculptors who at one time settled upon the seven hills [of Rome] in a white marmorean flock.” Since James penned this phrase, it has come to define and delimit our understanding of the lives and careers of women artists active in Rome. Over the past several decades, feminist art historians have begun successfully to deconstruct the moniker “white marmorean flock.” This book contributes to these endeavors.

James’s terminology demands scrutiny. The term “flock” refers to the animal kingdom—either to birds or to sheep—certainly not to intelligent women. Art historian Jane Mayo Roos deftly questioned this language in 1983: “While [James’s] sentence is a highly evocative one, it is also a killer: the inevitable implication is that these birds are women—tiny, anonymous, hapless creatures who traveled en masse and whose accomplishments were diminutive in scale.” Furthermore, the term “marmorean” (relating to marble), in its subtle aural association with “mammalian” (relating to female mammary glands or breasts), positioned women sculptors firmly in a feminized world of nature, sexuality, and childbearing rather than the masculinized world of culture and artistic production. At the same time, a “marmorean flock” that “settled” in Rome was an oxymoron, art historian Nancy Elizabeth Procter argues. A flock of stone birds cannot fly, and a flock of marble sheep remain immobile in their pastures. Thus the phrase referenced the ideological impossibility of a woman as an autonomous, creative artist and disavowed the historical productivity of American women sculptors in Rome.

In referring to this heterogeneous group of women as a “flock,” James refused to acknowledge the specificity of each artist’s circumstances, denying them any sense of individuality. The phrase homogenized their experience into a monolithic womanhood, erasing class status, age difference, social background, sexual positionings, and even race. In fact, the artists hailed from widely divergent social and economic backgrounds: Louisa Lander grew up in an elite Boston Brahmin household, Harriet Hosmer was raised in a middle-class professional family, and Margaret Foley came from working-class circumstances. A generation separated the women in age: Anne Whitney, the oldest of the group, was born in 1821; Vinnie Ream, the youngest, was born in 1847. Edmonia Lewis was of mixed-race heritage, African-American and Chippewa Indian. This book takes difference between women artists as a central tenet, displacing the idea of a unitary category of woman artist envisioned by James’s characterization.

At its core, this book is concerned with the gendered nature of creativity and expatriation. Although indebted to a host of scholarly and popular publications that have documented the lives and careers of individual sculptors, this book is thematic rather than monographic and provides a detailed investigation of the historical phenomenon of women’s sculptural production in Rome in the mid–nineteenth century. It takes its guidance from feminist theory, cultural geography (the historical and social dimensions of place), and expatriate and postcolonial studies. As an interdisciplinary examination of femininity and creativity, A Sisterhood of Sculptors provides models for viewing and interpreting nineteenth-century sculpture and for analyzing the gendered status of the artistic profession. As such, it complements several recent histories of women artists.

More broadly, the book expands the ground upon which the art and careers of women artists have been studied and situates it firmly within the frame of nineteenth-century transatlantic studies. Paris has received the closest scrutiny from scholars of American art due to its alliance with modernist art practices. This book, in arguing for the significance of Rome as a site of nineteenth-century creative endeavor, examines the art and touristic economies that guided the careers of American artists and considers the cultural and political currents that framed their artistic practice.

The Lure of Rome

Until 1876, Rome served as a central destination for American artists, journalists, social reformers, and tourists who were enchanted by Italy’s mythic arcadian past and fascinated by its classical legacy. Artists held center stage in the Eternal City, respected and admired by prominent people of the day, from statesmen and authors to businessmen and royalty. “Rome is the very home of art,” one American writer espoused. “In no city in the world are collected so many of the finest works of the greatest artists.” With much optimism, this writer concluded: “If a young artist cannot succeed here, he must be destitute of talent.”

The artist’s life in Rome was consumed with studying, modeling, casting, copying, and visiting museums and ruins, in short, what was called the “Art-Life.” In all, about thirty-eight American artists were living in the city in the 1850s. Among the sculptors were William Wetmore Story, Thomas Crawford, Harriet Hosmer, Louisa Lander, Emma Stebbins, Joseph Mozier, Chauncey Ives, and Benjamin Paul Akers. In fact, sculptors were the most highly regarded among American artists in Rome, a fact that the landscape painter Thomas Cole grudgingly acknowledged in 1847: “It seems to me that sculpture has risen above par, of late: painters are [considered] but an inferior grade of artists.” In Italy, American sculptors found not only access to Roman antiquities but also the aid of skilled Italian carvers, proximity to Carrara and Seravezza marble, and the inspiration of an international coterie of artists, which numbered more than a thousand in 1851.

Middle-class and elite American women imagined Rome as a hospitable zone for artistic practice. The city’s mythic character (a land of romantic freedom) and its historical resonance (as home for both expatriate artists and improvisatrice), beckoned women artists, writers, and social reformers. Hosmer, Lander, Stebbins, and Foley, under the mentorship of the thespian Charlotte Cushman, formed a close-knit and supportive community (though not without personal and professional jealousies) that the author Nathaniel Hawthorne rendered with some sympathy in his romantic account of American artists in Rome, The Marble Faun (1860).

The American colony of women sculptors, together with other stranieri (foreigners) from the United States and northern Europe, inhabited a defined area in Rome that stretched from the Piazza del Popolo (the northernmost entrance to the historic city) through the Piazza di Spagna, with its beautiful Spanish Steps, to the Piazza Barberini, at the foot of the famed via Veneto (map 1). These neighborhoods contained artists’ studios, international art academies, photography studios, and public and private art collections that catered to the growing population of artists in the city. In addition, residential apartments and palazzi, English bookshops, circulating English-language libraries, and banks serviced the Anglo-American community in these quarters. In the Piazza di Spagna, the American banker’s office of Pakenham and Hooker (where the American Express office is currently housed) prepared lists of “Artists in Rome,” complete with the addresses of their studios and private residences. Notably, it also boasted a list of “Female Artists [in Rome].”

Anglo-American travelers regularly visited the studios of women sculptors in Rome. As the American transcendentalist poet, journalist, and editor of the New York Evening Post William Cullen Bryant explained in 1859, Rome was “a better place for obtaining orders from their own countrymen than any of the American cities. Men [and women, I would add] who would never have thought of buying a picture or a statue at home, are infected by the contagion of the place the moment they arrive.” Bryant’s choice of words, “infected by the contagion of the place,” astutely characterized Rome and implied several layers of meaning. Travelers were both mesmerized by the cultural climate of the Eternal City and haunted by the fear of malaria (mal aria, or bad air), which infected the city and its surrounding area, the Campagna, in the warmer months. Both a physical plague (now understood as contracted from mosquitoes) from which travelers regularly died and a moral condition that mysteriously suffused the city, the contagion of malaria became synonymous with Rome in the nineteenth century. Henry James brought popular attention to this physical and moral “contagion” in his 1878 novella in which his eponymous protagonist Daisy Miller dies of malaria after socializing with a male suitor in the Colosseum late at night.

Rome offered women sculptors vital opportunities both to imagine and to re-create themselves as professional artists, using travel and expatriation as means to strengthen a sense of themselves as emboldened actors on an international stage. The moral contagion that James employed, however, served as a warning to ambitious women: Rome was a potentially hostile place where a woman’s career and reputation could be destroyed if she did not comport herself properly, that is, with appropriate deference to domesticity and the cultural norms of true womanhood. This book traces both the pleasures and perils of Rome for nineteenth-century women sculptors.

Neoclassicism

The American women sculptors who arrived in Rome in the 1850s and 1860s adopted the international art style known as neoclassicism and reconfigured it to give voice to feminine experience. Neoclassicism was a product of Enlightenment thinking in its fascination with the antique past, and specifically with the ideal nude. The concept of the ideal has been central to Western culture since the Greeks, serving as the means by which humans acknowledge, and redress, their limited comprehension of the cosmos, that is, their inability to apprehend the absolute. In claiming to embody universal and eternal values, the ideal nude mediates the historical opposition between the transcendent and the material, thus giving visual form to pure idea through the perfected human body.

In the eighteenth century, Enlightenment philosophers—Denis Diderot, François-Marie Voltaire, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau—argued that the figuration of ideal beauty had the capacity to express a universal moral good and, by extension, to suggest the human potential for a more perfect society. In an age of political revolutions—both in the United States and France—the creation of a better world depended upon the sovereign will of the individual. No longer subject to the higher authority of the king, the modern citizen acted as an autonomous agent in the world, free to pursue his own interests. Neoclassicism celebrated the newly won freedoms of the male citizen in the form of the ideal nude. In its association with the moral good of society, the nude exemplified the ideology of liberalism, a core principle of the Enlightenment.

The first generation of American neoclassical sculptors to arrive in Italy in the 1820s and 1830s included Hiram Powers (1805–1873), Horatio Greenough (1805–1852), and Thomas Crawford (1814–1857). Powers and Greenough chose Florence as their home; Crawford settled in Rome. They saw themselves as international citizens and recognized parallels between the Italian struggle for independence and unification, the Risorgimento, and the founding of their young republic. Italian nationalists, in turn, looked to the United States as a model for an enlightened republican government. Through the language of neoclassicism, the Americans voiced sympathy for the Italians’ quest for sovereignty while simultaneously communicating political ideals resonant with the sculptors’ new nation. This book embeds neoclassical sculptural practice in the material and ideological conditions of its production in Italy and provides a more expansive gendered and politicized reading of neoclassicism than is normally encountered in studies of nineteenth-century American culture.

In its association with liberty, freedom, and republicanism, neoclassicism revived the political ideals associated with antiquity. Educated Americans were well aware that knowledge of the classical past was necessary to the development of a free and civilized society. Commonly they embarked upon European tours as occasions for self-improvement. In traveling to Rome, middle-class and elite tourists gained firsthand knowledge of the classical world by walking through the Forum, the Palatine, and the Colosseum. In the Vatican Museum, they admired examples of the great artworks of Western civilization. Through contact with antique statuary, such as the Apollo Belvedere (fig. 7), understood at the time as the highest manifestation of antique genius, they acquired a cultural refinement and intellectual sophistication unavailable to them at home.

Standing in front of the Apollo Belvedere, viewers felt that they had come into contact with timeless truths that were embodied within the sculpture’s ideal form. When the American writer Herman Melville visited Rome in 1857, he noted that antique marble sculptures, “the work of visionaries and dreamers,” served as “realizations of the soul.” He continued, “Governments have changed; empires have fallen; nations have passed away; but these mute marbles remain—the oracles of time, the perfection of art.” In the antebellum period, literate Americans, like Melville, imagined antique civilization as inhabiting a superior moral realm. Classical sculptures, like the Apollo Belvedere, which embodied eternal and universal principles, became icons of a modern enlightened consciousness.

Through an expanding body of printed material—newspapers, woodcuts, broadsides, and pamphlets—classical history, literature, and sculpture served a broad literate public. Indeed, this “culture of classicism” was much more populist than normally characterized in the art-historical literature. As a cultural movement, classicism claimed a unique position in antebellum America, serving as “the central intellectual project” (after Christianity) of the young nation, historian Caroline Winterer has argued. Widely read publications, such as the Penny Magazine and Godey’s Lady’s Book, regularly referenced classical literature, such as Virgil, and illustrated famous antique sculpture, such as the Laocoön. In these diverse ways, antiquity and classicism had entered the American popular imagination, inculcating notions of civic virtue and patriotism into its male and female readers.

Classical culture was an intellectual province open to American women. Considered morally superior to men in Victorian society, women claimed unquestioned access to the virtue of the ancients and demonstrated a selfless concern for the common good. With its high-minded morality, neoclassicism offered a seemingly safe path into the profession of sculpture, mitigating, in part, the dangers posed to women artists who were successful in the public sphere. Rejecting the patriarchal bias of the Enlightenment, women artists consistently chose feminine themes for their neoclassical sculptures and imbued their subjects with an individual agency usually reserved for the male citizen.

The Risorgimento: Italian Political Life, 1820–1870

Through the language of neoclassicism, American women artists produced sculptures that engaged with Italian political life in ways that have been only tangentially explored in the art-historical literature. Like their predecessors, they were inspired by the political events that unfolded on the Italian peninsula. European imperial powers continued to rule the peninsula into the 1850s, when American women artists arrived in Rome. Austria governed Venice and the Veneto, Florence, and Milan; the Spanish Hapsburgs controlled Naples and the southern Italian provinces; and the Vatican ruled the Papal States, including Rome.

Americans aided the Italian nationalist cause in any way they could. The American sculptor Horatio Greenough donned the uniform of the Florentine Civic Guard when Florence rebelled against Austrian rule in 1847. His wife, Louisa, sewed the flag under which he and Hiram Powers demonstrated for liberal reforms. “We Italians have been doing something in the way of revolution,” Powers proudly asserted. Espousing the Republican cause, he proclaimed, “In short, we Italians . . . proved to the world that we are worthy to be trusted with liberty.” In a triumphant sign of unity, he repeated the phrase “we Italians” on several occasions in his correspondence. In Rome, Thomas Crawford helped defend the Porta San Pancrazio on the Janiculum Hill, where most of the fighting took place during the Roman Republic, a five-month period in 1849 when Giuseppe Mazzini and other radical Republicans governed the city. In all, 268 foreigners joined in the defense of Rome. The cultural, political, and artistic transactions between Italy and the United States are a central focus of this book.

Italy generated complicated and often contradictory responses from Anglo-American expatriates and visitors in the mid–nineteenth century. The Italian peninsula served as a cultural mecca for tourists, who sought the spectacle of an antique arcadian past, presented to them in guidebooks and cheaply sold prints and photographs. Exotic in its old-world traditions, intriguing yet dangerous in its Catholic pomp and ritual, and timeless in its dereliction, the imagined Italy beckoned nineteenth-century tourists to its shores. Many travelers approached this imagined antiquity as a spiritual home, an ideal past independent of Italy’s current history. In other words, this notion of an arcardian past stood in conflict with Italy’s contemporary political circumstances and its goals of independence, unity, and republicanism.

In the late eighteenth century, Enlightenment thought asserted the superiority of northern Europe as the new center of Western civilization, heir to the legacy of the classical tradition. As art historian Matthew Craske explains, “Northern European culture found its self-esteem much enhanced by the oft-repeated contention that Rome was ‘the tomb’ of old Europe.” The “accounts of the shabbiness and decadence of modern life south of the Alps,” he continues, only served to reinforce northern Europe’s “sense of cultural vitality.” With the peninsula divided into intra-European colonies, Catholic powers dominated these regions, which, as colonized territories, remained industrially backward and economically undeveloped until years after the unification of the country in 1861. The Austrian prince Klemens von Metternich, for example, contemptuously referred to the peninsula as a “mere geographical denomination,” without centralized political power or a unified identity of its own. Northern Europe and the United States represented modern entities—technologically progressive, economically productive, and democratically governed. Under colonial rule, the Italian peninsula appeared frozen in time, its colonial subjects viewed as a racialized other—idle, dependent, and childlike.

American women artists inhabited Italy at a unique political moment—at the historical juncture between colonialism and independence. Negotiating their roles as travelers and expatriates with caution, they were caught between the privileges of colonialism, the professional limitations of patriarchy, and the political ideology of republicanism. When the British journalist and radical Republican Jesse White Mario met Harriet Hosmer in 1854, for example, she found the sculptor “perfectly indifferent” to contemporary Italian culture and concluded that the American expatriate community regarded Rome “as their personal property, the exclusive heritage of art and artists.” In unwittingly adopting a mentality of racial superiority, Anglo-American women experienced the freedoms of Roman life from an empowered political perspective. At the same time, most envisioned and supported a free Italian nation. These living contradictions demonstrated a type of transculturation whereby American women artists were transformed by their contact with a colonized Italy. Moreover, such contact informed their artistic production in Rome.

The Modern Woman Artist

In 1848, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton penned The Declaration of Sentiments for the First Women’s Rights Convention, held in Seneca Falls, New York, she unleashed a powerful force in contemporary American society. Modeling her rhetoric upon that found in the Declaration of Independence, she opened her remarks with the familiar phrase: “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” then argued “that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Ratified and adopted by the convention, this document, with its explicit goal of instituting equal rights for women, had a resounding impact upon a young generation of professional women artists.

Simultaneously, the popular notion of “true womanhood” served as an ideal for middle-class and elite women. The “true woman” was defined by home and family and idealized as selfless, sentimental, nurturing, and pious. Nonetheless, professional women maintained a dialogue with this powerful nineteenth-century belief system. In essence, the ideology of true womanhood characterized white bourgeois femininity as irrefutably different from masculinity. In the Declaration of Sentiments, Stanton acknowledged and validated this widely held belief when she wrote that “man, while claiming for himself intellectual superiority, does accord to woman moral superiority.” In a seemingly contradictory move, she deferred to a belief in true womanhood as an empowering strategy that defined women as essentially different from and morally superior to men. At the same time, she argued for parity with men, that women had an absolute right to their labor and to autonomy in the public sphere. In her remarkable document, Stanton encouraged women to occupy what appeared to be competing subject positions—domestic angel of the home and professional actor in the world.

Recent feminist scholars have embraced such paradox as a way of understanding nineteenth-century women’s lives. Concerning middle-class and elite professional women, literary critic Cathy Davidson asks, “How do we mark where power ends and resistance . . . to this ideology of true womanhood [begins]?” In other words, when do women appeal to domesticity and other avenues of sexual difference as beneficial options for personal and professional survival? How do women subvert the potentially oppressive nature of this ideological structure? Nineteenth-century professional women, it seemed, negotiated a delicate balancing act between the two ideological poles of difference and equality.

Like the experience of gender and sexuality, definitions of the public and private spheres are culturally constructed, historically specific, and central to the ways in which modern social and psychic worlds have been structured. Rather than static and unchanging, these domains are better understood as dynamic and flexible fields that require the adaptation of certain learned behaviors. To challenge male domination in public was to challenge proper notions of femininity itself, with its norms of appropriate comportment. Considered impudent, women in public were deemed indiscreet, and at times immoral. The effort among women artists in Rome to balance interests private and public, domestic and professional, constitutes a central theme of this book.

Most of the women artists under study here distanced themselves from the vexed world of heterosexuality. Many had grown up in a sex-segregated sphere where “romantic friendships” between elite and middle-class women, universally perceived as chaste and spiritual in nature, had been the norm. The “romantic friendship” sentimentalized strong female bonds into a spiritualized love. In these same-sex relationships, desire was not denied, literary theorist Martha Vicinus has explained, but it certainly was sublimated. Reinforcing notions of sexual difference, romantic friendships between women were deemed “morally superior” as desire’s “bodily nature was subsumed to its spiritual potential.” This form of morally pure, sexually passionless, and domestically bound womanhood emerged in Europe and North America in the eighteenth century. The model woman in the new American republic, for example, was the virtuous mother whose purity remained perpetually unsullied within a secure and private domestic realm.

Meanings attached to same-sex love and sexuality were (and are) fluid, changeable, and impossible to define absolutely. In studying the lives of women artists and writers in Rome, we can imagine these intimate experiences within a continuum of sexual behaviors—ranging from the lesbian or lesbian-like to the normative heterosexual activities of marriage and childbearing. The heterosexual/homosexual binary is overly simplistic and even misleading. In many instances, these two polarities coexisted within women’s lives. Sexuality never constituted an either/or proposition but manifested itself differently in various social and historical settings. Many different types of same-sex relationships emerged in Rome.

We will never know for sure the nature of such varied female desire. How important is the discussion of female sexuality to our understanding of this women’s community in Rome? From the fragmentary evidence that exists, same-sex sexuality, together with rituals of homosocial bonding, was a significant aspect of nineteenth-century women’s lives in Rome. Before same-sex desire and practice were medicalized—that is, made unnatural—at the end of the nineteenth century, women who felt strong emotional attachments to each other and acted out erotic behavior did not perceive themselves as different from the normative definition of woman.

By 1869, Dr. Carl von Westphal, a German psychiatrist, had been among the first to identify this different category of womanhood: women who loved other women in a carnal way. He described these women as “inverts,” “the third sex,” or as simply “unsexed.” When this new category of woman was linked with economic and/or professional independence, “the invert” became a dangerous being, potentially threatening to a social order defined by a normative belief in separate spheres, female dependency, and a proper subordination to male authority. As an independent and ambitious entity, the women’s colony in Rome engendered much criticism from male colleagues. This book chronicles the ways in which women sculptors negotiated these tensions in the male-dominated field of art making.

Women artists were constantly renegotiating the character of true womanhood in order to accommodate contemporary notions of creativity and genius that had largely been gendered masculine. They embraced the domestic realm but reshaped it with their all-female households; simultaneously they led autonomous public lives as accomplished professional sculptors. They inhabited numerous public personas, developed divergent sexual identities, and experienced varied same-sex relationships. They enacted the guises of the “mannish woman,” the “tomboy,” the “true woman,” and the “lobbyist” (a hypersexualized female) according to their strategic needs. No one “true” feminine artistic self emerged in Rome.

During the years 1850 to 1876, women entered the public realm as writers, artists, and reformers, providing various models of professional and political engagement for future generations of women. The sculptors who traveled or expatriated to Rome composed the first truly professional class of women artists and, as such, participated in a modern egalitarian moment in American history. Maturing in a social, cultural, and political environment that encouraged feminine professional pursuits, they lived lives that we now consider quite modern. This book illustrates that the American women artists who pioneered careers in Rome between 1850 and 1876 were exemplars of modern womanhood. Their personal lives and professional experiences, though distant in time, share much with the contemporary struggles of women today.

Following a historical sequence, A Sisterhood of Sculptors has three thematic sections. It is not, however, an exactly chronological narrative, as the works discussed in each chapter are linked to specific ideas and arguments. Part I, “Feminine Professionalism in Boston and Rome” (chapters 1 through 3), outlines the conditions under which American women sculptors developed professional careers in Boston, appropriated the subject and style of neoclassicism as their own, and mediated the gendered terrain of artistic production in Rome. Part II, “Women Sculptors and the Politics of Rome” (chapters 4 and 5), addresses American responses to the political environment in Rome, specifically the unification of Italy as a nation state in 1860 and the inauguration of Rome as the nation’s capital in 1870. This section makes clear the ideological linkage between Italy’s political liberation and an Anglo-American vision of a feminist utopia abroad. Part III, “The Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Suffrage Debates” (Chapters 6 and 7), focuses upon American women sculptors in the public sphere in Rome and at home. Witnessing events in the 1860s that led to the liberation of the Roman people, they produced sculptures that drew parallels between the Italian political struggle and the momentous events simultaneously transpiring in the United States. During the progressive (even perhaps utopian) political environment of Reconstruction, women sculptors attained professional success at home by participating (albeit fleetingly) in the growing public-monument industry. The book closes in 1876, with the end of Reconstruction, the loss of the suffrage battle, and the close of the heady moment of women’s sculptural successes in Rome and the United States.