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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

American Women Sculptors

Since the mid-nineteenth century, American women have pursued careers as professional sculptors. The first “school” of women sculptors arose around Rome-based Harriet Hosmer (1973.133). Hosmer, Edmonia Lewis (2015.287.1; 2015.287.2), Emma Stebbins, and others studied and established studios in Italy, taking advantage of access to trained carvers and craftsmen as well as the ready supply of white statuary marble. These artists worked in the prevailing Neoclassical style for their monuments and smaller commissions and broke new ground through their independent lifestyles and emphasis on career over marriage and motherhood.

Beginning in the 1880s, a new generation of women sculptors emerged, far more numerous and diverse than their expatriate predecessors. They had access to formalized training in American academies such as the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League in New York, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Classes were taught by sculptors trained in the most up-to-date French methods, for instance by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and George Grey Barnard in New York, Charles Grafly in Philadelphia and Boston, and Lorado Taft in Chicago. Women sculptors also experienced the lure of Paris, studying and exhibiting in the world’s art capital of the day. While they were not eligible to enroll at the prominent state-run École des Beaux-Arts until 1897, women took in classes at other leading schools including the Académie Julian and the Académie Colarossi. They gained access to leading sculptors by other means: for instance, Janet Scudder studied privately with Frederick William MacMonnies while Harriet Whitney Frishmuth is documented as Auguste Rodin‘s only American student at the short-lived Académie Rodin. They also exhibited their works with some regularity at the Paris Salon, the most prestigious annual exhibition forum. In 1890, Theo Ruggles Kitson was the first American woman to earn a prize from the awards jury.

Women were frequently hired as studio assistants by established sculptors, thereby getting further training in the rudiments of modeling, enlarging, and casting. Frances Grimes, Mary Lawrence, and Helen Mears (09.147) worked with Saint-Gaudens; and Evelyn Longman assisted Daniel Chester French. On the occasion of the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893, Lorado Taft employed a group of women including Scudder, Bessie Potter Vonnoh, and Enid Yandell to point up models by other sculptors for the fairgrounds’ outdoor sculpture. Taft dubbed these artists “white rabbits” for their collective ability to nimbly ascend and descend the many required ladders. The Chicago fair represented a landmark with the inclusion of the Woman’s Building, with its own program of murals and architectural sculpture, as well as the assignment of independent monumental commissions to several of Taft’s assistants. From then on, women were regular contributors to the coordinated outdoor sculpture programs of America’s world fairs at the turn of the twentieth century; among the best known was Longman’s Victory (12.143) for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis.

Like their male counterparts, women excelled in a wide range of subject matter beyond the requisite bread-and-butter portrait commissions. Scudder made a specialty of lighthearted adolescent figures for garden and fountain decoration (06.967). Vonnoh enjoyed great success as a sculptor of genteel domestic subjects depicting women dancing, reading, and tending children (06.305; 06.306). Anna Hyatt Huntington was a foremost animalier, or animal sculptor (26.85.1). Both Frishmuth and Malvina Hoffman completed lithe female figures inspired by contemporary dancers (35.107). Although Hoffman (34.40.2), Huntington, and Longman in particular were widely regarded for their large-scale public commissions, women did not pursue monumental work as frequently as men. The preferred product of the woman sculptor was the small bronze statuette, which was exhibited at prominent exhibition venues such as the National Academy of Design, the National Sculpture Society, and the National Association of Women Artists. Works in bronze (which had overtaken marble as the preferred medium) were sold through the sculptors’ studios and foundries as well as through commercial showrooms like the Gorham Galleries, Macbeth Gallery, and Grand Central Art Galleries in New York. Women sculptors benefited from the consistent middle-class demand in the early twentieth century for small-scale sculpture to decorate the home and garden. Based on the number of recorded casts, compositions by women sculptors enjoyed considerable commercial success: the edition size for Frishmuth’s small model of The Vine (27.66) was an astounding 396 casts, while there were 359 casts of a 13-1/4-inch-long version of Huntington’s Yawning Tiger (ca. 1917). (Both exceeded Frederic Remington‘s iconic Broncho Buster [1986.81.2].)

In addition to the creation of sculpture, women made their mark on the arts in ancillary ways. Several were elected an academician of the National Academy of Design, the ultimate mark of professional recognition by one of the country’s oldest and most respected art academies, among them Longman in 1919 (the first woman to achieve this distinction), Vonnoh in 1921, and Huntington in 1922. Others wrote books based on their career experiences: Scudder published Modeling My Life (1925) while Hoffman wrote two autobiographies (1936, 1965) and one book about sculptural technique (1939). Huntington, with her husband Archer, founded Brookgreen Gardens in 1931, a sculpture park and nature preserve in South Carolina for which she commissioned works by fellow sculptors. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (22.81) established the Whitney Studio in 1914 to give artists a forum to exhibit their works. Her sustained interest in promoting and collecting American art led in 1930 to the founding of the Whitney Museum of American Art.