Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on February 25, 2009 with permission of the author and Brookgreen Gardens. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact Brookgreen Gardens directly at P.O. Box 3368, Pawleys Island, SC 29585: or:



 

Suffragettes, Free Spirits and Trendsetters: Women Sculptors in America

by Robin Salmon

 

Tis time my friends, we cogitate,
And make some desperate stand,
Or else our sister artists here
Will drive us from the land.
 
It does seem hard that we at last
Have rivals in the clay,
When for so many happy years
We had it all our way.
 
-- Male sculptors' lament in The Doleful Ditty of the Roman Caffe Greco by Harriet Hosmer[1]
 

In the mid-nineteenth century a group of expatriate artists traveled to Rome where they studied, established studios and created the new American sculpture. Among this group were nine women, dubbed the "White Marmorean Flock" by writer Henry James.[2] They were pioneers -- their lifestyles and choices of career over marriage and motherhood broke new ground and made way for other women artists to follow. They were continually doing battle with male critics and sculptors. It was considered shocking that these artists used unclothed models for their sculpture. It was also beyond Victorian conventions for a woman to take responsibility for her life, choosing to live without a male provider. These women sculptors must have presented an intimidating, even frightening, picture to their colleagues and their colleagues' wives. Prominent among them were Edmonia Lewis and Harriet Hosmer.

Edmonia Lewis (c. 1844 - c. 1911) was the first American sculptor, male or female, of African and Native American ancestry. The daughter of a gentleman's servant and a Chippewa woman, Lewis spent her youth in New York State with her mother's tribe and was given the name, Wildfire. Drawing upon her dual background, she created this country's first sculpture depicting subjects inspired by a minority heritage: Hagar cast into the wilderness, symbolic of the black woman in white society; Forever Free depicting a pair of freed slaves; and The Old Arrow Maker and his Daughter, one of a series of groups based on Longfellow's poem, The Song of Hiawatha. Despite the popularity of her work in the late nineteenth century, and her importance as the first significant non-white sculptor in America, Lewis's career fell into obscurity and the exact date of her death is unknown.

Harriet Hosmer (1830 - 1908), small in stature but fiercely independent, produced a body of work that was considered outstanding by contemporary critics. Yet, she suffered from attacks against her character when her free-spirited lifestyle caused tongues to wag and against her art when she was accused in print of presenting as her own the work of male sculptors. She promptly threatened to sue for libel and the accusations were retracted. Hosmer's sculpture was often imbued with feminist symbolism -- something quite extraordinary for her time. The captive queen of Palmyra, Zenobia, considered her masterpiece, was presented not as a defeated victim but as a strong, dignified heroine, the manacles at her wrists treated more like ornaments than objects of restraint. The subject of a play by Shelley, Beatrice Cenci, asleep in her cell before execution for murdering her incestuous father, was seen as a symbol of woman enduring life in a man's world. Hosmer was moved to write to Phebe Hanaford, one of the first American clergywomen:

I honor every woman who has strength enough to step out of the beaten path when she feels that her walk lies in another; strength enough to stand up and be laughed at if necessary. That is a bitter pill we must swallow at the beginning; but I regard those pills as tonics quite essential to one's mental salvation...But in a few years it will not be thought strange that women should be preachers and sculptors, and everyone who comes after us will have to bear fewer and fewer blows. Therefore I say, I honor all those who step boldly forward, and, in spite of ridicule and criticism, pave a broader way for the women of the next generation.[3]

In 1889 a group of painters and sculptors organized the Woman's Art Club of New York, forerunner of the National Association of Women Artists, in response to frustrating years of being rejected from exhibitions by all-male juries and of being barred from serving on powerful committees of art organizations. Artists depended upon their work being seen in important annual exhibitions such as those of the National Academy of Design, one of the country's oldest art organizations. Not only was the professional recognition crucial but, before the existence of commercial art galleries, exhibitions were the primary avenue to reach potential buyers. By 1911 with nearly one thousand members nationwide, the club's annual exhibition prompted an article addressing the issue of a woman's position in the art world. A critic, Christian Brinton, acknowledged that women had been historically important in the "development of taste" and cited the Woman's Building in Chicago at the World's Columbian Exposition as a landmark achievement.[4]

Although the National Academy of Design elected two women sculptors to associate membership as early as 1828 and 1842, they were considered amateurs and did not advance to permanent status. The next election of a woman did not occur until 1906 when Bessie Potter Vonnoh became a member of the Academy. By contrast, in 1899, the six-year-old National Sculpture Society had admitted three women: Theo Ruggles Kitson, Enid Yandell and Bessie Potter Vonnoh.

The Paris Salon was the pinnacle of exhibition possibilities of the nineteenth century. A woman's work not only had a greater chance of being accepted for exhibition there than in the United States, but also had a chance of winning an award. In 1889 Theo Ruggles Kitson was the first American woman sculptor to win an award at the Salon. Fourteen other American women exhibited there before 1900, including Edith Howland and Clio Hinton Bracken.

Anna Hyatt's experience at the 1910 Salon was somewhat different. Her full-scale model for a life-size Joan of Arc was awarded first place; however, the judges withdrew the award and gave an honorable mention because they did not believe a woman could have done all the work without male assistance. But, the sculptor had completed the entire work alone -- from building the armature to emplacing more than one ton of clay -- a process she described as "a terribly brutal piece of work."[5]

In his 1921 book, Modern Tendencies in Sculpture, Lorado Taft devoted chapters to Rodin, Saint-Gaudens, and sculpture from France, Germany, America and "various lands."[6] Although four women -- Edith Burroughs, Anna Hyatt (later Huntington), Evelyn Longman and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney -- were mentioned in the chapter on American sculpture, none received in-depth analysis. In fact, only five sentences on American women sculptors appeared in the entire volume and only one work by a woman was pictured, though there were more than four hundred illustrations. Yet, Taft was well aware of the existence of women in the sculpture profession since many of them had studied with him. He even championed their cause during the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition when he asked permission to employ women as his assistants -- the famous "White Rabbits."[7] Despite vast experience with women as artists, Taft's lack of recognition of their accomplishments was not uncommon.

Janet Scudder (1873 - 1940), brought up in Terre Haute, Indiana, was adventurous and uninterested in what were considered proper female pursuits. While working as one of Taft's White Rabbits, she was greatly impressed by the exuberant sculpture of Frederick MacMonnies which she saw at the 1893 Fair. Setting out for Paris with the painter Zulime Taft, sister of Lorado Taft, Scudder eventually persuaded MacMonnies to accept her as an assistant. On a trip to Italy she saw for the first time the Renaissance sculpture of Donatello and Verrocchio: a pivotal influence in her work. Her first sculpture produced in this period, Frog Baby or Frog Fountain, a little boy dancing in delight, was purchased by Stanford White for use in the elaborate homes he designed for his clients. With this patronage Scudder's career was firmly established and her work was bought up as quickly as she could produce it.

Although she had several commissions for monuments, Scudder was considered the major progenitor of garden sculpture in America. In a newspaper interview she explained why she disdained public monuments:

Washington has been almost disfigured by equestrian statues...You can hardly look in any direction, but a huge bronze figure intervenes...If I had my way I would make it a law that no more of them should be placed there or in any city which makes pretensions to municipal beauty.[8]

Scudder participated in the woman's suffrage movement, as did a number of her female colleagues. Late in life after she became dissatisfied with the lack of color in sculpture, she turned her talents to painting.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1877 - 1942) was mentioned in Taft's Modern Tendencies in Sculpture, however he referred to her by her husband's name -- Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney -- since she was both a sculptor and a prominent member of society. Throughout her life she fought to create her art. At first, with her family, the battle was to become an artist; then, with her fellow artists, she struggled to be taken seriously. Just as those of Anna Hyatt Huntington's, her contributions to art go far beyond her body of work. She used her wealth and connections to further the careers of other artists and, all too often, to provide subsistence for them. The Whitney Studio Club, established in her Macdougall Alley studio in 1914, gave artists a place to create and exhibit their work. Whitney amassed an extensive collection of American art through this patronage and, in 1930, the Whitney Museum of American Art was founded. It was not surprising that the first director of the museum was a woman -- Juliana Rieser Force -- described as "the dynamo that moved Gertrude Whitney's activities in art forward."[9] The museum was the first in the country to promote American art and played a major role in raising it to a position of world leadership.

Marriage was a formidable obstacle to a woman's career, even when the spouse was an artist. Elsie Ward Hering (1872 - 1923) gave every indication that she could become a great sculptor, but devoted some of her most productive years to assisting her husband with his art. Born on a farm in Missouri, she was brought to Denver, Colorado, by her family in 1887. After beginning her training with local artists, Hering went to New York to attend the Art Students League in 1896. Her teachers, Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Daniel Chester French, encouraged her to go to Paris. Two years later, she established a studio there and modeled Boy and Frog, which won a bronze medal at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in Saint Louis.

In 1900 Saint-Gaudens invited her to work in his studio at Cornish, New Hampshire. For the next ten years she assisted him with many of his most important commissions. Along with Frances Grimes, another talented studio assistant, Hering finished some of Saint-Gaudens' projects underway at the time of his death. Her completion of the George Baker Memorial in Kensico Cemetery, New York, was praised for its "astonishingly beautiful and poetic result, filled with the spirit of his work."[10] However, after her 1910 marriage to Henry Hering, another assistant in Saint-Gaudens' studio, she helped her husband become a successful sculptor and produced little work of her own.

Edith Woodman Burroughs (1871 - 1916) entered the Art Students League at the age of fifteen to study modeling with Augustus Saint-Gaudens and drawing with Kenyon Cox. By the time she was eighteen, Burroughs supported herself by creating decorative figures for Tiffany and Company. Although her work was well respected, after her marriage in 1893 she subordinated her career to that of her husband, Bryson Burroughs, a painter whom she had met at the Art Students League. Unfortunately, her output was cut short in 1916 when she died at the age of forty-four from influenza. In 1917 Taft cited her as "gifted and lamented" when he wrote of her Fountain of Youth, which was awarded a silver medal, and Fountain of the Arabian Nights for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition.[11] Burroughs' sculpture at Brookgreen, Bacchante, a small figure seductively eating grapes, has the richness of detail stemming from the influence of the French sculptor, Injalbert.

The women sculptors of today have tread pathways cleared by their predecessors, but, in many ways, obstacles continue to exist. Although today's professional art organizations are now open to everyone, regardless of gender, women still have difficulty with public acceptance and promotion of their work, and with the identification and cultivation of patrons.

In the 1980s, the Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous group of women calling themselves "the conscience of the art world," began to speak out against the double standard in art by installing posters on buildings in New York City documenting discriminatory practices in galleries and museums. A poster from 1987 asked the direct question:

When racism and sexism are no longer fashionable, what will your art collection be worth?...,

followed by the answer:

...The art market won't bestow mega-bucks on the work of a few white males forever. For the 17.7 million you just spent on a single Jasper Johns painting, you could have bought at least one work by all of these women and artists of color...

This statement preceded a list of 67 names including sculptors Anna Hyatt Huntington, Edmonia Lewis, Augusta Savage and Meta Warwick Fuller. The poster also listed thirteen tongue-in-cheek advantages of being a woman artist, such as "not having to be in shows with men," "working without the pressure of success," "being included in revised versions of art history" and "not having to undergo the embarrassment of being called a genius."[12]

Among the group of sculptors emerging in the post-World War II era, Leonda Finke (born 1922) has made a name for herself with powerful, serenely expressive images, primarily of women, that call forth an emotional response from the viewer. A versatile artist, Finke has experimented with nontraditional shapes and subject matter. Recent large-scale figures are comprised of built up layers of plaster over a metal armature. The sculpture is then carved, creating form and rough surfaces, then cast in bronze. When asked why she focuses on women as subjects she has stated: "It's very much mine. I know from a woman's experience and do what I know."[13]

Having built a reputation as an abstract expressionist in the 1950s, Audrey Flack (born 1931) moved into photo realism in the 1960s and became known for huge canvases filled with feminine and masculine icons symbolizing both the spiritual and literal interpretations of life. In the 1980s she stopped painting and began to create sculpture using the female imagery of the goddess, incorporating interpretations of classical mythology with twentieth century symbols such as rockets, bullets and airplanes. In her book, Art & Soul, Notes on Creating, Flack candidly observed the difficulties and the joys of being an artist, a woman, and a woman artist in today's society.

In the catalogue of her 1995 retrospective exhibition, Glenna Goodacre underscored that women artists are called upon to fulfill multiple roles in life while balancing the pressures of their work:

My success as a sculptor was not without difficulties, but every situation provided a learning opportunity...When my work (or my gender) was rejected from a show, I allowed my anger to push me harder...I have been a student, homemaker, wife, daughter, mother, friend, home-builder, decorator, socialite, speaker, business woman, and cook -- all while I was juggling my art career. It was most important to me to be recognized as a "professional artist!"[14]

Both Leonda Finke and Audrey Flack have remarked that Anna Hyatt Huntington's monumental sculpture, El Cid Campeador, and its companion pieces on Audubon Terrace at Broadway and West 155th Street, New York City, were an early inspiration and catalyst for their artistic interests. Audubon Terrace is the center of a complex of museums and institutions created by Archer Huntington whom Anna Hyatt married in 1923. Other women artists who claimed Anna Hyatt Huntington (1876 - 1973) as mentor and role model included Brenda Putnam, Sylvia Shaw Judson, Katharine Lane Weems and Marjorie Daingerfield. Hundreds of others, male and female, benefited from her patronage through acquisition of their works for Brookgreen Gardens and her many, often anonymous, contributions to the nation's art organizations, schools and museums.

Another monument by Huntington, Joan of Arc, at Riverside Drive and 93rd Street, New York City, has been a visual magnet for artists since its dedication in 1915. Although it was the first equestrian monument of a woman by a woman, Joan is significant for another reason. It was the first sculpture to represent Joan of Arc in the appropriate arms and armor. For this accomplishment Huntington was made a chevalier of the Legion of Honor by the government of France. Lorado Taft praised Joan of Arc for its "very great dignity," calling it "one of the notable achievements of recent years [confirming] a solidly built reputation."[15] Today, it is considered to be one of the finest monuments in America.

In founding Brookgreen Gardens in 1931 with her husband Archer, Anna Huntington set out to acquire the work of American figurative sculptors. Although not entirely by design, she collected a significant number of works by women. Brookgreen Gardens was named a National Historic Landmark in 1992 to recognize Anna Hyatt Huntington's contribution to American art through her sculpture and her patronage of women artists and to designate Brookgreen Gardens' status as an important site in women's history.

 

NOTES:

1. Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer, American Women Sculptors, A History of Women Working in Three Dimensions (Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1990) 56.

2. Ibid., 24. Henry James called them "that strange sisterhood who at one time settled upon the seven hills in a white marmorean flock." Led by the actress Charlotte Cushman, they included Edmonia Lewis, Emma Stebbins, Harriet Hosmer, Anne Whitney, Louisa Lander, Vinnie Ream, Margaret Foley, Blanche Nevin, Florence Freeman and Sarah Fisher Clampitt Ames.

3. Ibid., 44 - 45.

4. Pisano, Ronald C., One Hundred Years: A Centennial of the National Association of Women Artists (Roslyn Harbor, N.Y.: Nassau County Museum of Fine Art, 1988) 10.

5. Humphries, Grace, "Anna Vaughn Hyatt's Statue," International Studio, Vol. 62, (December 1915): 48.

6. Taft, Lorado, Modern Tendencies in Sculpture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1921), [v].

7. Scudder, Janet, Modeling My Life (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1925) 58. When Taft told Daniel Burnham, the chief architect of the fair, that he wanted to employ women among his assistants in order to complete the work on time, Burnham supposedly replied: "Hire anyone who can do the work...white rabbits, if they will help out." His group of female assistants became known as the "White Rabbits." Among them were Edith Woodman Burroughs, Janet Scudder, Bessie Potter Vonnoh, Enid Yandell, Carol Brooks and Julia Bracken.

8. Ibid., 155, 292 - 293.

9. Friedman, B. H., Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1978), 532.

10. Saint-Gaudens, Augustus, The Reminiscences of Augustus Saint Gaudens, vol. 2 (New York: 1913), 354 - 355.

11. Taft, Modern Tendencies, 140.

12. Chadwick, Whitney. Women, Art, and Society (New York and London: Thames and Hudson, 1990), 351.

13. Poole, Joan Lauri, "Bound and Unbound: Leonda Finke's Heroic Women," Sculpture Review 44, no. 3 (Winter 1996), 9.

14. Edson, Gary, ed., Glenna Goodacre: The First 25 Years, A Retrospective Exhibition of Sculpture (Lubbock, TX: Museum of Texas Tech University, 1995), 9.

15. Taft, Modern Tendencies, 131.

 

About the author

Robin Salmon is vice president for collections and curator of sculpture at Brookgreen Gardens in Pawleys Island, South Carolina, where she has been on staff since 1975. She holds degrees in history and art history from the University of South Carolina and is a graduate of the Museum Management Institute. She is currently the exhibitions advisor for the National Sculpture Society and has been on the editorial board of its publication, Sculpture Review. Ms. Salmon is a former chair of the Curator's Committee of the Southeastern Museums Conference, and she has been a research fellow of the Waccamaw Center for Historical and Cultural Studies at Coastal Carolina University.

 

Resource Library editor's note

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on February 25, 2009, with permission of the author and Brookgreen Gardens, which was granted to TFAO on January 14, 2009.

This essay appears in the exhibition catalogue for American Masters: Sculpture from Brookgreen Gardens, which was on view at Brookgreen Gardens April 1996 - May 1998. The exhibition traveled to Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas, Austin, Texas (June 12 - August 16, 1998); Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago, Illinois (January 16 - April 18, 1999); National Sculpture Society, New York City (May 10 - July 30, 1999); and Tampa Museum of Art, Tampa, Florida (September 5 - October 31, 1999). The catalogue can be purchased from the Brookgreen Gardens shop: http://www.brookgreen.org/shop.cfm.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Shana Herb Johannessen for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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