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Harriet Hosmer: A Cultural Biography.

Harriet Hosmer: A Cultural Biography

by Kate Culkin

University of Massachusetts Press, 2010

Races of Mankind: The Sculptures of Malvina Hoffman

by Marianne Kinkel

University of Illinois Press, 2011

Renewed interest in nineteenth-and early twentieth-century women sculptors first revived the legacies of Harriet Hosmer and Malvina Hoffman in the 1970s and 1980s. More recent studies have examined their work from different thematic perspectives and in relation to discourses of gender, professionalism, and race. Kate Culkin's cultural biography of Hosmer builds on these precedents, while deploying a full biographical treatment to allow readers to appreciate the neoclassical sculptor's place in nineteenth-century America and "what her life can reveal about the era" (3). The book, which illustrates all of Hosmer's major works (including one watercolor rendering by the artist Patricia Cronin), offers an engaging cultural history of the second half of the nineteenth century as seen through the lens of the sculptor's life. Culkin fluidly captures the competing impulses that shaped Hosmer's career, showing the fruits of her networking and nonconformity, but also highlighting the frustrations that accompanied brazen ambition.

Culkin's study is strongest when she interprets the reception of Hosmer's work. Though Beatrice Cenci (1856) helped raise the artist's public profile by garnering the support of those who used it "as evidence of America's increasing gentility and women's potential," most commentators did not acknowledge how it challenged earlier portrayals of a frail and innocent Cenci (47-49). By contrast, the strength of Hosmer's Zenobia (1859) was undeniable. The author and abolitionist Lydia Marie Child published a glowing review in which she quoted Hosmer describing the captured queen as "calm, grand, and strong within herself" (63).


Despite Zenobia's power, not only was its reception at the 1862 London Exposition tepid, but an anonymously penned article criticized the sculptor for not carving the work herself. The art community quickly rose to her defense (reliance on Italian workmen was standard practice after all). More telling, though, is the timing of such negative publicity, coming as it did on the heels of Hosmer's move from the studio of her mentor, John Gibson, and the death of her father. Hosmer's new independence, Culkin claims, made her a target. Ever mindful of her public persona, Hosmer defended herself using a language that appropriated the tone of etiquette manuals, unintimidating exemplars of female authority.

Marianne Kinkel similarly stresses the career benefits of Malvina Hoffman's adroit networking and self-promotion skills. Like Culkin, Kinkel calls her book a "cultural biography," though it is a biography of a sculptural series rather than of the artist herself (4). Kinkel's useful study detangles the complex history of the creation and display of Hoffman's Races of Mankind works, which were first exhibited at Chicago's Field Museum in 1933. Made in the name of physical anthropology at a time when race was understood as a biological concept, these sculptures occupied a grey area between anthropology and art. The ethnographers and anatomists who gave the sculptor conflicting advice about the purpose of her project only grudgingly embraced her fine art credentials. Kinkel unpacks the implications of Hoffman's techniques (both casting and modeling), as well as discussing the anthropological and commercial photographs she based (quite literally) some of her figures on, showing how "the former lives" (60) of those images impacted the finished works, for example, Mangbetu Woman (Fig. 1). It is the shifting social meanings of objects that Kinkel's study best illustrates, by addressing how the packaging and reception of the Races of Mankind series changed from the 1930s to the 1970s (and beyond), and by looking at how meaning is produced at the periphery of traditional art world boundaries. This wide-angled approach used by both authors results in compelling portraits of the sculptures and the women who made them.

Jennifer Wingate is Assistant Professor of Fine Arts at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, New York. She is completing a book on World War I memorial sculpture.
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Author:Wingate, Jennifer
Publication:Woman's Art Journal
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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