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Stebbins, Emma (1815-1882)  

Emma Stebbins was part of what Henry James called "a white Marmorean flock," women sculptors who went to Rome in the mid-1800s to learn to work in marble. She is remembered for sculpture produced in a ten year period between 1859 and 1869, when she was in her forties and early fifties.

Her career in art was supported by her own commissions, her wealthy New York family, and her lover, who was the most famous English-language actress of the mid-nineteenth century.

Stebbins was born on September 1, 1815 and raised in New York City, the third daughter and sixth of nine children of a bank president and a Nova Scotia-born mother. Her family encouraged her talents in art and writing. She studied at various American studios and was elected to the National Academy of Design in 1843. She exhibited in National Academy and other shows.

In 1857, at the age of forty-one, Stebbins went to Rome for further study. In that city--home to a sizable Anglo-American colony--she found a large infrastructure supporting art: teachers, technicians, artists, students, and a flow of international collectors. Stebbins remained in Rome for the next decade, during which the United States Civil War (1861-1865) took place.

Shortly after arriving in Rome, Stebbins met Charlotte Saunders Cushman (1816-1876). Handsome, charismatic, and an exceptionally successful actress, Cushman was recovering from the breakup of a ten-year relationship with actress and writer Matilda Hays. After an Easter trip to Naples in 1857, Stebbins and Cushman decided to spend their lives together.

Stebbins and Cushman's friendship circle included lesbian sculptor Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908) and African-American/Native-American sculptor (Mary) Edmonia Lewis (1843-ca 1911), who may also have been a lesbian. They were also acquainted with French lesbian painter Rosa Bonheur.

In Rome, Stebbins--who had originally trained as a painter--shifted her interest to an idealized form of figure sculpture. After a period of study, she supported herself through sculpture commissions, many from Americans. Cushman promoted her work and, at least once, raised funds for casting a major piece.

An early commission was a portrait bust of Cushman made in 1859-1860. Cushman had a prominent jaw of the type often referred to as "lantern," which Stebbins handled with grace and dignity. Her bronze statue of educator Horace Mann was installed outside the State House in Boston in 1865.

Stebbins' best known work rises above the Bethesda Fountain in New York City's Central Park. Unveiled in May 1873, Angel of the Waters is a draped, winged, bronze figure with arms spread downward, blessing the water below. Her pedestal is supported by four cherubs representing Health, Temperance, Purity, and Peace.

When, in 1869, Cushman was operated on for breast cancer, Stebbins devoted herself to nursing her lover. The following year, the couple returned to the United States.

Cushman died of pneumonia in Boston in 1876 at the age of fifty-nine. She is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. Following Cushman's death, Stebbins wrote the actress's biography and compiled her correspondence: Charlotte Cushman: Her Letters and Memories of Her Life (1878).

After the death of Cushman, Emma Stebbins produced no more sculpture. She died in New York in 1882 at age sixty-seven of "phthisis," a progressive wasting disease, and is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

Tee A. Corinne


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arts >> Overview:  American Art: Lesbian, Nineteenth Century

The accomplishments of American lesbian artists in the nineteenth century, some of whom are only now receiving recognition, is all the more remarkable for the obstacles they faced as women and as homosexuals.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects of the Visual Arts: Nude Females

While nude depictions of women appear in most cultures, on both sides of the equator, and in rich variety, lesbian artists have been particularly resourceful in their use of the female nude.

arts >> Bonheur, Rosa

The most popular artist of nineteenth-century France and a renowned painter of animals, Rosa Bonheur lived in two consecutive committed relationships with women.

arts >> Cushman, Charlotte

One of the most famous actresses of the nineteenth century, Charlotte Cushman was a commanding presence both on and off stage; she used her fortune and fame to champion the work of other women artists, among them her lover Emma Stebbins.

arts >> Hosmer, Harriet Goodhue

American sculptor Harriet Hosmer, among a handful of successful women artists in the nineteenth century, frequently scandalized the polite society of her day by her mannish dress and adventurous behavior.

literature >> James, Henry

Though closeted, Henry James had a number of intimate relations with young men, and his sexual orientation imbued his fiction.

arts >> Lewis, Mary Edmonia

American sculptor Mary Edmonia Lewis lived most of her life in Rome, where she was a member of a lesbian circle of American expatriates and artists.

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Gerdts, William H. "Stebbins, Emma." Notable American Women, 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary. Edward T. James et al., eds. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975. 3:354-355.

Leach, Joseph. Bright Particular Star: The Life and Times of Charlotte Cushman. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1970.

Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer. "Emma Stebbins." American Women Artists: From Early Indian Times to the Present. New York: Avon, 1982. 85-86.

Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer. "Emma Stebbins." American Women Sculptors: A History of Women Working in Three Dimensions. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1990. 63-66.


    Citation Information
    Author: Corinne, Tee A.  
    Entry Title: Stebbins, Emma  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated May 12, 2008  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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