Since the second wave of feminism swept the US in the 1960s, lesbian feminist academicians and writers have turned their research into scrutinizing the female enclaves buried under patriarchal scholarship. In the tell-all 1970s, the remains of the “Bloomsberries” and Parisian ex-pats were picked clean in dozens of biographies. By the 1980s, interest turned to the painterly arts and photography, under the scalpels of such adroit clinicians as Tee Corinne, Linda Nochlin and Deborah Bright. The decade also turned spotlights on 19th century academia and the socio-political foremothers surrounding Jane Addams and Eleanor Roosevelt. More recently the kliegs illuminated the girls in the celluloid closets and on stage.
In the 19th century it was de rigueur as part of the Grand Tour to traipse back to Greece and Rome and soak up the classic art and architecture of antiquity. Americans wishing to blunt their pioneer edges and do just honor to their growing pantheon of heroes developed a taste for neo-classic sculpture and monuments. The growing capitalist class sought out statuary to embellish its homes and gardens. Now as we jump into the 21st century the scholarly appetite has turned to examining the lives of those Anglo/American expatriate women artists in Italy who filled that demand for statuary.
Henry James, Henry Blake Fuller, and a generation of effete novelists made pilgrimages to, and wrote nostalgically of, Italy as the fountainhead of art and culture. James in 1902 decried the “strange sisterhood of American lady sculptors who at one time settled upon the seven hills [of Rome] in a white marmorean flock.” That dismissive epithet moved into the language of a generation of art criticism, as did “scribbling ladies” for literature.
Since Dolly Sherwood published her excellent, copiously researched 1991 biography of Harriet Hosmer and the lesbian colony of artists around her, articles and books on members of the “flock” have burst the dam of patriarchal scholarship. Julia Markus’ book Across An Untried Sea: Discovering Lives Hidden in the Shadow of Convention and Time (Knopf, 2000) wove her work around thespian Charlotte Cushman, her lover Emma Stebbins, and their circle to which an enthralled Hosmer was admitted as a teenager.
Now Kate Culkin has stepped into the circle of those scholars examining the “flock” expanding our understanding not only of the phenomenon of Hosmer’s success but the underlying social and personal alliances that made it possible. Culkin concentrates on Hosmer’s cultural milieu, her “ladies bountiful” and lovers (rich patrons, widows and daughters of tycoons) in Italy, Boston, Paris and London. Even as psychology began to influence the law, intense relationships between women were still regarded with a benign indifference. There were no laws affecting lesbianism in France under the Code Napoleon or England under Queen Victoria. Even Rome, at the heart of Catholicism, couldn’t be bothered in the time of Hosmer because it was embroiled in the revolutionary and political incursions of Mazzini and Garibaldi.
Culkin looks at the influences of spiritualism, the new feminism, the decline of Romanticism and the rise of Modernism, on Hosmer and her work. Considered the foremost woman sculptor of her time, Hosmer portrayed the image of strong women, unbowed, even when crushed under patriarchal power. Culkin examines the iconography of such works as her most popular “Xenobia in Chains” and the “African Sybil.” She tells us that Hosmer, even while manicuring her public profile, grew wary of her identification as a sculptor and dabbled unsuccessfully in other pursuits such as the construction of a perpetual motion machine, but did patent a useful process for an artificial marble.
In the 1890s Hosmer was at the center of a heated controversy on the position of women at the World’s Columbian Exhibition. The “Isabellas,” a society urging the integration of women’s work into every facet of the Exhibition, opposed the minions of doyenne Bertha Palmer, who wanted all to be showcased collectively at her Women’s Building. Hosmer succumbed to the influence of Susan B. Anthony and withheld her commissioned statue of Isabella of Castille (giving her jewels to Columbus to finance his voyage). It was later the centerpiece of an 1894 Exhibition in San Francisco. Culkin has added a highly readable, well annotated study to the increasing pantheon of creative lesbians supported by networks of friends and lovers.