Harriet Hosmer: Nudity Pioneer

14, July 2016
Photograph of Harriet HosmerHarriet Hosmer. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

If you know the name Harriet Hosmer, you likely know of her work as a sculptor and have seen her pieces on display in museums throughout the world. But even though Hosmer is remembered today as a trailblazer and a monumentally talented artist, her road to fame was a difficult one. Born in Massachusetts in 1830, Hosmer demonstrated a unique artistic ability early on but was met with barriers to her professional and artistic development—and even the freedom to do what she loved. Like all great sculptors of the human form, Hosmer made attempts to study human anatomy (artist and medical speak for "nude people"), but she was repeatedly rebuffed by medical classes open only to men.

Photograph of the Missouri Medical CollegeMissouri Medical College at 8th and Gratiot Streets in 1868. Missouri Historical Society collections.

The East Coast proved to be too rigidly bound by societal norms that completely rejected the idea of a woman studying human anatomy or creating art from live nude models, but an opportunity arose for Hosmer to study human anatomy across the country in St. Louis. In 1850, at age 20, she traveled to St. Louis as a student of the Missouri Medical College. There she found freedom to pursue the knowledge of the human form necessary to perfect her craft. In 1851 she left St. Louis as the first woman to have completed a course of study at the school that would eventually become Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Hosmer then immigrated to Rome, living with the famed actress Charlotte Cushman and studying under renowned sculptor John Gibson.

Image of Hosmer's statue of Thomas Hart Benton in St. Louis's Lafayette Park. Hosmer's statue of Thomas Hart Benton in St. Louis's Lafayette Park. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Today, Hosmer’s work can be seen throughout St. Louis—from Beatrice Cenci on display in the St. Louis Mercantile Library to Zenobia in Chains at the Saint Louis Art Museum. But one of her most visible contributions can be found in the form of Lafayette Park's larger-than-life bronze statue of Senator Thomas Hart Benton. Commissioned in 1868 by the Missouri state government to commemorate the famed politician and his efforts to secure statehood for Missouri, Hosmer’s statue of Benton was notable for two reasons: It was the first public monument in Missouri's history, and the state's leaders allowed it to be created by a woman. Although the flowing robes that cover Benton’s form are likely a purposeful addition by Hosmer to avoid any controversy associated with her sculpture of an underclothed man, her skilled hand and understanding of the human form are clearly evident—and at least partially due to the time she spent in St. Louis as a student.

—Sam Moore, Online Communications Coordinator

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