Most of the Artwork in Our Library Was Made by (Fascinating, Audacious, Victorian) Women

THE LOCAL HISTORY ROOM at the Watertown Free Public Library is crowded with suited, wizened gentlemen glaring sagely into the middle distance. Have you noticed this? I’m talking about the artwork. On all four walls of the Library’s quietest room, local big wigs, doctors, bankers, and library donors stand watch. There are eleven paintings and sculpted busts on display, and only two depict women. It’s quite a boy’s club in there.

Sometimes this feels inevitable. Aren’t all government buildings filled with paintings and sculptures of distinguished white men? WFPL was founded in 1869 and most of the works in our permanent art collection were donated in the late nineteenth century, America’s Victorian Era. When founding director Solon Whitney began collecting artwork for the library, the country was still reeling from the Civil War, suffrage for women was a controversial idea, and the 19th Amendment was decades away. In many ways, our permanent art collection reflects those times.

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From left: Charcoal drawing of Joshua Coolidge by H. Adelaide Coolidge, 1888. | Charcoal drawing of Charles J. Barry by Emma McLaughlin, 1888.

Earlier this year, I began a project of uploading photos and descriptions of the Library’s artworks to our website. Since the collection was already cataloged with biographical and historical information (compiled by Ellen Wendruff), my task was simple. I just needed to put it online. I imagined this would be very repetitive, mindless work, so I popped in my headphones and set to it like a chore.

Quickly, the chore became a history lesson. As I dragged and dropped and copied and pasted, I couldn’t help but get lost in the backstory behind each artwork. And I began to notice a pattern. While most of the subjects in WFPL’s permanent art collection are men, most of the artists in our collection are women. I’m sorry to say that this came as a surprise. Did I assume that most of the artists would be men? Well, considering that most of the subjects were men, maybe. But history is often more complicated than I assume.

So, in the spirit of…complication, here two of my favorite mini biographies from the Library’s permanent art collection, adapted from Ellen Wendruff’s guidebook DiscoverArt: A Guide to The Art Collection at Watertown Free Public Library

HARRIET HOSMER

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Charcoal drawing of Harriet Hosmer, artist unknown, 1850.

Harriet Goodhue Hosmer (1820-1908) is one of the most famous female sculptors of the Victorian era. Born and raised in Watertown, she possessed an extremely independent and free-spirited temperament. As a young woman, Harriet Hosmer set up a studio in her Watertown home and studied drawing and modeling from Peter Stephenson, a Boston sculptor.

Because of restrictions placed upon Victorian women, Hosmer was not able to study anatomy at Boston’s medical schools. Wayman Crow, art collector, Missouri State Senator, and father of one of Hosmer’s schoolmates, arranged for her to study anatomy under Professor Joseph MacDowell in St. Louis, MO. Hosmer’s only known plaster model is a bust of her valuable friend Wayman Crow. It is currently on display in the Library’s Local History Room.

In 1852, Charlotte Cushman, a well-known actress of her time, persuaded Harriet Hosmer’s father to allow Hosmer to study in Rome. There, Hosmer impressed the well-respected English sculptor John Gibson, who invited her to work in his studio, an opportunity she could not readily refuse. In Gibson’s studio, Hosmer honed and improved her craft. She was the first woman to earn entry into the male-dominated community of American and English neoclassical sculptors working in Rome in the mid-1800s. Today, Hosmer’s marble portrait medallion of John Gibson hangs in the Library’s Periodicals Room.

ANNE WHITNEY

Anne Whitney (1821-1915) was a sculptor and descendant of early Watertown settlers. She is considered one of the most distinguished female sculptors of the 19th century, and much of her artwork reflects her lifelong interest in social justice. Largely a self-taught artist, she began her career as a poet and turned to sculpture in her thirties.

One of Whitney’s most famous sculptures is a bronze statue of Charles Sumner, U.S. Senator from Massachusetts and champion for civil rights. Not long after the senator’s death, there was a nation-wide competition to create a Sumner memorial statue for the Boston Garden. All artists were required to anonymously submit 2-foot scale models. Anne Whitney’s model won the contest in 1875, but when the Victorian judges realized the winner was female, they reversed their decision.

Not until 24 years later did Whitney finally begin sculpting a full-size statue from her plaster model. Completed in 1902 at age 80, Whitney’s bronze statue of Charles Sumner is the artist’s last work and considered to be one of her finest. Today, the finished statue sits in Harvard Square near Harvard Yard and the First Parish Church in Cambridge. The original plaster model that won (and was rejected from) the Victorian sculpture competition is currently on display in WFPL’s Periodicals Room.

Getting to know Harriet Hosmer, Anne Whitney, and others changed my understanding of the Local History Room boy’s club completely. Now, when I view those “inevitable” renderings of stern-looking men, a vibrant, cosmopolitan, female-driven art scene springs to life in my mind. It’s inspiring learn how these Watertown women worked within and against Victorian cultural norms to learn, create, and leave their marks on history.

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Painting of Dr. Julian A. Mead by Mary Rosamond Coolidge, date unknown, gifted in 1925.

If you’d like to learn more about the artworks and artists represented in WFPL’s permanent art collection, captions are now available on our art collection webpage and on small title cards on display throughout the library. Multiple copies of DiscoverArt: A Guide to The Art Collection at Watertown Free Public Library by Ellen Wendruff are available for checkout at WFPL, and can be requested throughout the Minuteman Library Network. Enjoy the tour!

– Jamie, WFPL Community Engagement Specialist

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