In anatomy, female students were rare.
It was Spring 1851, and the day had come for the gala commencement ceremony at Missouri Medical College, a precursor institution to Washington University School of Medicine. When the school's flamboyant founder and director, Joseph Nash McDowell, MD, rose to give his oration, he began in his customary fashion: "Gentlemen..." he intoned grandly.
At least one of the assembled students must have winced. Indeed, given her characteristic candor, it is surprising that she didn't hiss. Harriet Goodhue Hosmer, a Massachusetts native, had just completed a rigorous five-month term at the college, where she had studied anatomy. Now she was graduating, alongside many male classmates and a single female chemist, with bold plans to become a sculptor — one of the first women to enter this traditionally male field.
Over time, she succeeded brilliantly, surmounting obstacles to become the world's foremost woman sculptor. Among her friends she counted several leading writers and artists: Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Nathaniel Hawthorne, actress Fanny Kemble. In Rome, where she established her studio, she headed a burgeoning group of neoclassical women sculptors, all working in marble, whom Henry James archly termed: "the white marmorean flock."
Through the struggle and acclaim, she remained closely allied to St. Louis, which supplied her with a number of coveted commissions, including Oenone (now in the Washington University collection), Beatrice Cenci (at the Mercantile Library) and the magnificent bronze statue of Thomas Hart Benton (Lafayette Park). In 1860, she wrote to the Missouri board that awarded her the Benton assignment:
I have reason to be grateful to you for this distinction, because I am a young artist... But I have also reason to be grateful to you, because I am a woman, and knowing what barriers must in the outset oppose all womanly efforts, I am indebted to the chivalry of the West, which has first overleaped them.
Because 2008 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Hosmer, her adopted city has staged a series of events to honor her memory. Washington University's Kemper Art Museum mounted an exhibit displaying four of her sculptures: a small bronze sculpture depicting the clasped hands of the Brownings (1853), Daphne (1854), Oenone (1854-55) and a portrait bust (1866) of Hosmer's patron, financier, father figure and much-adored hero: St. Louis dry goods magnate and university co-founder Wayman Crow.
Hosmer, known widely as "Hatty," grew up in Watertown MA as the only child of a well-meaning but befuddled physician who had lost his wife and three other children. Uncertain how to handle Hatty, a tomboy and scapegrace, he sent her to a Lenox boarding school, where director Elizabeth Sedgwick was known for educating difficult children. Sedgwick succeeded in taming Hatty, without destroying her nature or her aspirations.
At school, Hosmer made a lifelong friend: Cornelia Crow, Wayman Crow's oldest daughter. When Hosmer's father failed to persuade the Boston Medical Society that a local medical school should enroll Hatty, a budding artist, as an anatomy student, Wayman Crow stepped in to help. In 1850, Hosmer began her studies at the Missouri Medical College, while living with the Crow family.
McDowell, the school's head, was known to be eccentric. As Hosmer biographer Dolly Sherwood describes him: "...On national holidays like the Fourth of July, he called the students out for maneuvers with firearms, he giving the orders in a three-cornered hat, and wearing a cavalry saber at his side." A Kentucky native, he became an ardent secessionist; ironically, his medical school, located at 8th and Gratiot, would serve as a Confederate prison during the Civil War.
Yet McDowell admired Hosmer, and spent time gently reviewing each day's lesson with her. Hosmer, who later created a medallion in his honor, recalled that in accepting her he had "tossed back his iron gray hair as he said... 'she might study here, and that if anybody attempted to interfere with her, he would have to walk over my dead body first.'"
Next Hosmer was off to Rome, where she won an apprenticeship with noted sculptor John Gibson. Commissions were scarce, but Wayman Crow came to the rescue with a commission for a statue of Oenone, rejected wife of the Trojan prince Paris, and a joint commission for a sculpture of the doomed Roman maiden Beatrice Cenci. Later, Crow served on the board that chose Hosmer to create the Benton statue.
Behind every fresh assignment, Hosmer saw Crow's generous hand. If she received an order "from the poles," she said to him mischievously, "I should be persuaded that somehow or other you had a hand in it." As she wrote in 1857, thanking him for the Cenci commission: "I rejoice sincerely that it is destined for St. Louis — a city I love, not only because it was there I first began my studies, but, because among many generous and indulgent friends who dwell therein, I number you most generous and indulgent of all."
In May 1868, Crow reported to her excitedly on a momentous occasion: the inauguration of the Benton statue, the first public monument in Missouri. At the ceremony, attended by some 40,000 people, Benton's daughter Jessie Benton Frémont was moved to tears by the statue. "Hip! Hip! Hurrah!" wrote Crow. "...yesterday was a proud day for St. Louis, a proud day for you, and I need hardly say it was a proud day for me." "Hip! Hip! Hurrah!!" replied Hosmer. "Indeed it is a long time since I have been so happy."
Of course, Crow was not her only customer. Her playful versions of Puck sold to a duke, an earl and even the Prince of Wales, Queen Victoria's oldest son. Another statue, The Sleeping Faun, made its way to Dublin and the front hallway of Sir Benjamin Guinness.
Toward the end of her life, Hosmer returned to the United States and gave up sculpture to develop a perpetual motion machine. By the time of her death, she was slipping into debt — and it was Cornelia Crow Carr who rescued her friend's personal papers, which were later donated to the Radcliffe College library.
What a fertile imagination she had, marveled Cornelia. "The work dreamed of by her would easily have filled another lifetime."