Harriet Hosmer ~ marble maker and trailblazer

President* Trump,

Yesterday’s letter meandered quite a bit more than I anticipated and so I decided to hold off on telling you about Harriet Hosmer (b. 1830, d. 1908), whose design for the Emancipation Memorial was strongly considered but in the end lost out to Thomas Ball, he of the towering Lincoln over the kneeling Archer Alexander. The primary reason given for selecting Ball’s design over Hosmer’s was that the latter was going to be way too expensive, it being the far more elaborate of the two.

It’s curious that the Retropolis article about the statue as well as all the others I found about it, Hosmer and her would-be design figure prominently. Usually, whoever loses contests such as these is relegated to the dust heap of history. The Retropolis article notes that Hosmer’s design included a black Union soldier on a pedestal below Lincoln on his larger, taller pedestal while other references said that multiple black Union soldiers were to be included. It took some digging, but I finally found a reasonably clear line drawing of the proposed monument on Twitter (https://twitter.com/kristoncapps/status/1275576776048205825/photo/1) and it is indeed far more involved than the Ball design.

In the center is a very large pedestal topped with columns and a decorative roof and inside all that is a Lincoln figure. This central pedestal is surrounded by four smaller ones that are snugged up against it and each of these is topped by a woman. Although it’s hard to tell because the drawing is pretty small, I think they are black women. The two at the front are turning their heads to look up at Lincoln while the two in the back look like their gazes are directed outward. A little ways out from the four women at each of the corners of the monument are two black Union soldiers on the leftmost side and two black men who look like they might still be chained on the right side. It seems like Hosmer was trying to tell more of the story, as though maybe she didn’t want us to get to 2020 and be able to glide past the chains and what they signify, that black men served in the Union army, or that black women were integral to the fight for freedom. I can’t tell if any of the women were to be depicted as being pregnant, but I wouldn’t be surprised and if so, that would be a whole other level of crucial storytelling in that these symbolic babies would be born into freedom.

Since the articles made quite a lot of Hosmer being one of only a handful of women sculptors in her time, I read up on her a bit and found out some cool things about her. She apparently pioneered the process of turning ordinary limestone into marble and she designed and built a bunch of machines and figured out new processes for sculpting that allowed for very, very fine details to be included (e.g., veins on hands, strands of hair, etc.). Because no art school in the US would take her, she went to Rome for 7 years and studied abroad where she could both find a teacher and have access to live models. The other thing that was pretty great to learn about her yesterday, on Pride Sunday, was that she and Lady Louisa Ashburton were lovers for 25 years.

Here’s an undated (but very, very old) quote from Hosmer:

“I honor every woman who has strength enough to step outside the beaten path when she feels that her walk lies in another; strength enough to stand up and be laughed at, if necessary.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harriet_Hosmer)

May we all be safe to step off the beaten path when our walk lies in another.
May we be willing to push for change for ourselves and for those coming up behind us.
May we have the strength to withstand others’ insecurities and attendant ridicule.
May we all accept and cherish the Harriets among us.

Tracy Simpson

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