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arts

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American Art: Lesbian, Nineteenth Century  
 
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Anne Whitney

Anne Whitney, also from a Massachusetts Unitarian family and a friend of Hosmer's, was a published poet before turning to the visual arts. Whitney was politically active and her work reflected her political and social beliefs. She worked in Boston as a sculptor, where she met with success. In 1866 she, too, went to Rome, and upon her return in 1871 she received a commission for the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., for a sculpture of Revolutionary War hero Samuel Adams.

Whitney completed more than one hundred works, including a portrait bust of her friend Lucy Stone (Boston Public Library), an early feminist who was the first Massachusetts woman to earn a college degree and who kept her name when she married, inspiring later feminists to dub themselves "Lucy Stoners."

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Whitney established her studio at 92 Mount Vernon Street on Beacon Hill in Boston. She is said to have had a "Boston marriage" with the painter Abby Adeline Manning (dates unknown), whose work has fallen into obscurity and who is remembered now only as Whitney's longtime companion.

Mary Edmonia Lewis

Unique among the sisterhood was Mary Edmonia Lewis (1844-1909). The only daughter of an Ojibwa (Chippewa) Indian mother and African-American father, she was the most remarkable of the American expatriates because of her humble beginnings and mixed race heritage. Born in upstate New York in 1844 and orphaned at an early age, Lewis attended Oberlin College but left amidst a scandal and never graduated.

In 1863 Lewis went to Boston to study with the sculptor Edward A. Brackett, and it was there that she met and befriended Hosmer and Whitney. For a time Lewis and Whitney maintained studios in the same building. Aside from the scant tutelage she received from Brackett and later from Whitney, Lewis was largely self-taught as a sculptor. Like Hosmer, she was wary of having her work attributed to her teachers so she chose not to continue with any formal education in art.

Lewis sailed for Rome in 1865. Her studio near the Spanish Steps was a popular destination for tourists and a gathering place for other expatriate artists and intellectuals, many of them women, and she supported herself from the sale of her work.

In Rome Lewis turned to African-American and Native American subjects that reflected her heritage, including at least three works about emancipation depicting freed men and women, and The Old Indian Arrow Maker and His Daughter (1872, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution).

"Masculine" Clothing and Appearance

"Wearer of masculine clothing" soon became a euphemism for the lesbian artist. Some, such as the French lesbian painter Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899), had to request special permission from the police to wear men's clothing to attend classes or to simply go about in public. Although any practical-minded woman artist in the nineteenth century would prefer the simple maneuverability of men's garments to the voluminous skirts of women's fashion, the habit is most famously associated with Bonheur, Lewis, and Hosmer.

Lewis wore so-called "mannish" attire, and Hosmer was sometimes called "mannish" in her appearance. Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose controversial novel The Marble Faun (1859) included the characters of two women sculptors in Rome, derisively described Hosmer's dress: "She [wore] a sort of man's sack of purple broadcloth, into the side pockets of which her hands were thrust as she came forward to greet us....She had on a male shirt, collar and cravat, with a brooch of Etruscan gold." The attention to their dress made each of these famous lesbians popular with both tourists and the contemporary press because they defiantly went against the societal norm.

Lesbian Patron Charlotte Cushman

Patronage was an important factor for the nineteenth-century lesbian artist. Just as there were lesbian artists, so, too, were there lesbian patrons who bought and supported the work.

Boston-born actress Charlotte Saunders Cushman (1816-1876), famous for her gender-defying roles on the stage, was a kind of a guardian and patron to many artists including Lewis and Hosmer and hosted a salon that they all frequented.

Cushman was instrumental in encouraging Hosmer to relocate to Rome and made the initial journey with her. She provided Hosmer with free housing for her first seven years in Rome and arranged for her apprenticeship with sculptor John Gibson.

Eventually Cushman took the artist Emma Stebbins as her partner, introducing her to the sculpture medium. Stebbins, originally from New York, arrived in Rome at age forty-one, a mature woman but novice artist. Cushman helped Stebbins receive some of her more important public commissions, and her works now stand in Brooklyn, Boston, and New York's Central Park (Angel of the Waters, ca 1862). After Cushman's death, Stebbins edited the actress's letters and published her biography.

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