2 Woman Sculptors in Relation to Antislavery and Women’s Rights Movements

Sahara Willis

Harriet Hosmer, Oenone (1855)[1]

photograph of the statue "Oenone"
Harriet Hosmer, Oenone (1855)



Throughout the mid-nineteenth century, American women vocalized their criticism of slavery and their support for women’s rights [2] through the creative medium of sculpture. These women contemplated and responded to debates surrounding slaveholding[3] and the progressive role of women in relation to politics. Themes of race, gender, and power were prevalent in their work. They each used visual arts as a means to convey their political sentiments, ultimately denouncing the act of holding slaves as immoral and taking a stance in advocacy for women to play a salient role[4] in political affairs.

Women frequently came across hardships when trying to establish themselves as professional artists. They lacked equal access to art education and grappled against the notion that art spaces and studios were public, therefore not appropriate for women. For sculptors, nude art was often the muse for creation, these women were faced with an obstacle as the study of human anatomy and life drawing (which usually utilized nude models) was regarded as wrongful for women in the nineteenth century. That being said, these women sculptors faced conflicted expectations within their craft; they were in need of the education that threatened to deprive them of the qualities that fabricated their gender and sexuality[5].  Even in the face of these obstacles, a number of American women became successful sculptors in the mid-nineteenth century. The personal ties they had in the push for equality, encouraged them to speak up in the face of adversity.

These trailblazing artists became known as “the white marmorean flock,” a term coined by Henry James[6] Each with a commitment to abolitionism and women’s rights, in association with other like-minded non-conformers. While the persons who sat as the subjects of neoclassical sculpture were compatible with the “woman’s sphere”[7] the artists themselves and the process’ within of their work did not fall into this sphere.

The Artists

Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908), was known for her work with suffrage organizations and she often showcased works with themes of victimized woman to portray her ideologies. Mary Edmonia Lewis (1843?-1911?) used sculpture to commemorate and exemplify abolitionist efforts and also through memorializing inspirational events such as the Emancipation Proclamation with her drawings. She was involved in several antislavery organizations and held a strong commitment to abolitionism. Anne Whitney (1821-1915) often broke norms of artistic conventions with European and American influences in her direct representations of black figures, including the allegorical female Africa and the biographical Toussaint L’Ouverture. [8] Other artists of this stature, working in the Neoclassical style include Louisa Lander, Emma Stebbins, Margaret Foley, Florence Freeman, and Vinnie Ream.

Sculptors were often pulled towards symbolic means of expression like utilizing the physical form of an enslaved woman as a means to concretely represent the social constructs and conceptual ideas of race, gender, and inequality. In doing so these women frequently pushed the bounds of nineteenth-century artistic convention in order to critique slavery and women’s status in America. They stood with other reformers that served as their advisors, financial supporters, and allies as they worked diligently to create a stance for social reform through visual communication. These women stood at the forefront of this progressive movement and created in solidarity with each other.

Hosmer and Oenone

As we delve further into the white marmorean flock, Harriet Hosmer’s work is notable. She preferred Neoclassical idealism to more naturalistic trends and rendered mythological and historical figures, such as Oenone, Beatrice Cenci, and Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, with nobility and grandeur[9]. Hosmer’s work showcases her craftsmanship and embodies many of the ideologies she stood firmly by throughout her career.

Now we’ll take a closer look at Hosmers’ Oenone.


Oenone (1855) was Hosmer’s first full-length, full-body sculpture. The sculpture depicts the nymph abandoned by her lover, for Helen of Troy. The story of Oenone became popular in the mid-nineteenth century with the publications of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem Oenone. [10] With his poem, Tennyson focused on the tragic love that Oenone, daughter of the river-god Oeneus, felt for her husband Paris when he abandoned her for Helen in the episode that sparked the Trojan War. [11] Hosmer’s statue and portrayal of the myth follows similar themes of mourning and victimization.

In Oenone, Hosmer highlighted her subject’s reserve and capability to overcome and maintain their beauty in the face of objectification, sexual assault, and even utter tragedy. She takes a lot of influence from Greek mythology. For instance Daphne, who was unwilling to be an object of the god Apollo’s lust and sexual desires, Medusa, who was raped by the god Poseidon, and Oenone who is also victimized by male infatuation. Hosmer’s Oenone demonstrates her ability to evoke emotion through the craftsmanship of soft curves and understanding of the nude body, while also displaying the subject’s reserve and emotional state through the position of her body. [12]




In lieu of a biography, I leave you with a quote:

Art and culture are the greatest weapons against hate agendas, entrenched ideologies, and power structures that harbor and promote the business of divisiveness.

Fantastic Negrito

  1. See “Women Artists in the Washington University Collections,” Women Artists in the Washington University Collections | Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, accessed November 2, 2019
  2. Throughout the late 1800s and the early 1900s, many activists in antislavery joined the women's rights movement. These women worked diligently to gain the right to vote, establish socioeconomic equality and carry out other social reforms. See “Women Suffrage in the Progressive Era - American Memory Timeline- Classroom Presentation: Teacher Resources,” Library of Congress, accessed November 21, 2019, http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/timeline/progress/suffrage/)
  3. Slaveholding is the practice of owning slaves. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries people were kidnapped from the continent of Africa, forced into slavery in the American colonies and exploited to work as indentured servants. See History.com Editors, “Slavery in America,” History.com (A&E Television Networks, November 12, 2009), https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/slavery)
  4. Women gained the right to control their earnings, own property, and, in the case of divorce, take custody of their children. By 1896, women had gained the right to vote in four states (Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, and Utah) See “Women Suffrage in the Progressive Era - American Memory Timeline- Classroom Presentation: Teacher Resources,” Library of Congress, accessed November 1, 2019, http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/timeline/progress/suffrage/)
  5. This concept is known as Unsex or deprivation of one's sexual power.
  6. The White Marmorean Flock refers to a group of nineteenth-century expatriate American sculptors working in the Neoclassical style. The Neoclassical style is used generally to describe art or architecture with classical influences.
  7. The term "woman's sphere" commonly refers to domestic life; Tasks involving housekeeping or childcare.
  8. See "Introduction." Included in How Did Women Sculptors Contribute to and Draw Support from the Antislavery and Woman's Rights Movements, 1855-1875?, Documents selected and interpreted by Laura R. Prieto. (Alexandria, VA: Alexander Street Press, 2008).
  9. See “National Museum of Women in the Arts,” Harriet Goodhue Hosmer | National Museum of Women in the Arts, accessed November 12, 2019, https://nmwa.org/explore/artist-profiles/harriet-goodhue-hosmer)
  10. Tennyson published two different versions of the poem, the first in 1832 and the second in 1842
  11. The Trojan War is one of the most important events in Greek mythology in which war was waged against the city of Troy by the Achaeans. See “Women Artists in the Washington University Collections,” Oenone | Women Artists in the Washington University Collections, accessed November 12, 2019, https://pages.wustl.edu/womenartists/articles/10534)
  12. Hosmer’s sculptural interpretation of the story shows Oenone looking downward in mourning but with a serene expression and idealized form characteristic of the neoclassical style See “Women Artists in the Washington University Collections,” Oenone | Women Artists in the Washington University Collections, accessed November 2, 2019, https://pages.wustl.edu/womenartists/articles/10534).


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