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American Art: Lesbian, Nineteenth Century  
 
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According to cultural and art historians, the notions of "lesbian art" or "lesbian artist" did not exist prior to 1970. However, lesbian artists certainly existed and worked in the nineteenth century, their accomplishments all the more remarkable for the obstacles they faced both as women and as homosexuals. The reasons for their relative obscurity are easily apparent--serious women artists of any stripe were an anomaly in the nineteenth century, and sexism and in the arts mirrored that of the rest of the culture.

In order to have careers many women artists resorted to simple deceptions, such as signing their works with a first initial and surname in order to avoid obvious gender identification, just as many women writers used male pen names in order to get their works published.

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Their fears were well-founded--lesbian sculptor Anne Whitney (1821-1915), for example, won a commission in 1875 for a sculpture of the abolitionist Clark Sumner, only to be denied the job when it was realized she was a woman. Likewise, disbelieving critics accused lesbian sculptor Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908) of exhibiting her male teacher's work as her own.

Mary Ann Willson

Little definitive information survives about early nineteenth-century lesbian artists and their lives. Although not much is known about her, one exception is Mary Ann Willson (active 1810-1825), a New York-based folk artist who is considered to be one of the first American watercolorists. Her paintings, made with natural pigments derived from berry juice, brick dust, and vegetable dyes, ranged in subject matter from biblical narratives to a colorful, fanciful mermaid holding an arrow in one hand (Marimaid, ca 1815).

The self-taught Willson settled around 1810 on Red Mill Road, Greenville Town, Greene County, New York, with a Miss Brundage, with whom she bought land and built a log cabin home. Willson painted and sold her pictures, mainly to her farmer neighbors, while Brundage farmed their land.

American Expatriates in Europe

Many lesbian artists found a receptive climate in Europe where more training opportunities were open to them. Financial freedom was often a determining factor--most of the women who studied in Europe came from wealthy families, which afforded them the freedom to travel and pay for their private educations. Of the best-known American lesbian artists of the nineteenth century, nearly all spent time in France or Italy in creative and intellectual communities that nurtured their talents. For painters, the destination was Paris; for sculptors, Rome.

The establishment throughout Europe in the late 1700s of separate art academies for women had transformed their opportunities to study from original works and develop their talents. European women artists who emerged in the eighteenth century, many from established artistic families, also began to take pupils informally. It would be the first time that women were able to study with women, demonstrating that an artistic career was reasonable and within reach. By the end of the century many of these women would even become instructors in the traditional male-only academies.

Women Sculptors in Rome

The women sculptors who went to Rome to tackle their recalcitrant medium were in the forefront of a burgeoning feminism that would not accept a lesser status for women's work. They were already radical, since sculpture was not considered an art form appropriate for women.

"[T]hat strange sisterhood of American 'lady sculptors' who at one time settled upon the seven hills [of Rome] in a white, marmorean flock," is how novelist Henry James, referring to their preference for the fine white marble quarried near Rome, famously dubbed lesbian sculptors Hosmer, Whitney, Mary Edmonia Lewis (1844-1909), and Emma Stebbins (1815-1882)--along with non-lesbians Louisa Lander, Margaret Foley, Florence Freeman, and Vinnie Ream Hoxie (the only "sister" to marry).

These artists worked primarily in the neo-Classical style, producing monumental sculptures of historical and allegorical female subjects including Cleopatra; Beatrice Cenci; Hagar, the biblical servant of Sarah; and Zenobia, the Queen of Palmyra.

Harriet Hosmer

Harriet Goodhue Hosmer, from a liberal Unitarian family in Watertown, Massachusetts, became the first American woman to heed the call to Rome. She knew from an early age that she wanted to be a sculptor and would not be dissuaded because of her gender. In 1852 Hosmer carved her first full-size marble work, Hesper, the Evening Star, and that same year moved to Rome to take an apprenticeship.

Within four years of her arrival Hosmer became financially independent through sales of her work. Her monumental work Zenobia in Chains (1859, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut) met with tremendous acclaim when exhibited in the United States, drawing 15,000 visitors to its exhibition in Boston. Its success allowed her to establish her Roman studio and she quickly became the "star" of the Roman art world, frequently compared to her male counterpart, the celebrated sculptor William Wetmore Story.

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