Long Read

The Marble Faun: An Egregious Portrayal of Female Expatriate Artists in 19th Century Rome

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Left to Right: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun, and sculptor, Harriet Hosmer

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1860 novel, The Marble Faun, is widely believed to be based on the experiences of the American expatriate sculptors who lived and worked in Rome in the 19th century.[1] In his book, Hawthorne follows a supposedly fictional group of American expatriate artists, depicting the city of Rome, the artists’ relationships, and the artists’ work through a love story. While these depictions express both Hawthorne and the time period’s expectations of women, they are contradictory to the actual experiences of these female expatriate sculptors. I intend to illustrate the female gender roles, nature of sexuality, and sexism in The Marble Faun, and explain how Hawthorne’s depictions are contradictory to the true experiences of these women, specifically the experiences of Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908).

Gender Roles

“An artist has no business to marry. For a man, it may be well enough, but for a woman, she must either neglect her profession or her family, becoming neither a good wife nor a good artist.” – Harriet Hosmer, August 1854 [2]

Nathaniel Hawthorne demonstrates his views, and indeed the traditional 19th century views, of the role of women in his text The Marble Faun. This can be explored through the development of his female characters Miriam and Hilda. Miriam and Hilda can be read as being the antithesis to the other, and their characterisation dramatises the demonstration of this idea. Miriam is characterised as dark, passionate, and destructive in her desires.[3] Her artwork depicts women who deceive men through a combination of beauty and manipulation, and Miriam can be viewed as at fault for the corruption of the character Donatello.[4] Miriam’s seductive behaviour diverges with Hawthorne’s patriarchal values, and in order to discourage this behaviour in his readers, his character Miriam is left unable to reach her full potential, in both her life and in her artistic aspirations.[5] This functions as both a disparaging exploration of autonomous women, as well as a warning of the dangers of breaking female gender norms.

Contrastingly, Hilda is characterised as pure, virginal, and aligned with the 19th century ideals of the perfect female.[6] Hilda may have been living and working alone in Rome, but she lived a life that was respectable and proper, eventually giving up her career in art to marry, pro-create, and return to America.[7] Hilda is successful in what Hawthorne views as being the true, proper path for a woman, that of a submissive wife and mother.[8] This contrasting pairing of a woman who represents the maleficent nature of sexuality and independence and a woman representing chastity and traditional values is symbolic of Hawthorne’s “obsession with feminine purity” and his beliefs of the appropriate behaviour of women in this time period.[9]

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Harriet Hosmer at work

It is widely recorded that the female sculptors of Rome did not behave in accordance with these traditional gender roles, and the idyllic depiction of Hilda can be read as contradictory to Harriet Hosmer’s experiences of femininity. Hosmer herself was conscious of the obstacles she would face as a sculptress because of these gender roles, and they are evident in the quote found above. [10] Rome was a city renowned for giving female artists a sense of freedom and independence, away from the limiting norms of American society, offering women the chance to use travel and expatriation in order to strengthen their skills, and promote themselves in an international arena.[11] Indeed, Hosmer was very aware that Rome would provide her with opportunities that the restricting nature of America could not, stating that “I can learn more and do more [in Rome], in one year, than I could in America in ten… this is a better place for an artist.”[12]

Hosmer was a key example of these “New Women,” who expatriated to Rome at a young age, and performed a “metamorphosis from free spirited youths into more mature modern women.”[13] She lived and worked independently, financially, emotionally, and physically, embodying what was described as “the eccentric life of a perfectly ‘emancipated female.’”[14] Hosmer had a number of peculiarities that distanced her from the traditional female behaviour of the time, including her “boyish” style of behaviour and dress, her independence, and her sexuality.[15] Her behaviour and lifestyle was disconnected from that of Hawthorne’s depictions of ideal femininity in The Marble Faun, and specifically in his characterisation of Hilda. Instead, Hosmer more resembles the dangerous behaviour of that of his character Miriam. This can be understood as Hawthorne’s disapproval of the way that Hosmer, and many other American female expatriate sculptors, broke away from the traditional behaviours that would have been expected of them in America.

Sexuality

“When you are here I shall be a model wife (or husband whichever you like).” – Harriet Hosmer to Lady Louisa Ashburton, circa. 1872 [16]

The main female characters in Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun are both heterosexual. Heterosexuality was still considered the norm, and one’s experience of sexuality is still highly specific to historical period and culture. Despite this, there are recordings of “romantic friendships” between women at this time that resemble an early form of lesbian relationships.[17]

Although there is no explicit sexual discussion in Hawthorne’s text, the dichotomy between the danger of sexuality and virtue of chastity is clear. The passion and sensuality of Miriam’s private sketches is enough to cause the naive Donatello “trouble, fear, and disgust.”[18] Conversely, Hilda copies her paintings innocently from the Masters.[19] She lives in a tower, above the “corrupted atmosphere of the city beneath,” where she tends the shrine to the Virgin Mary.[20] The lofty tower is symbolic of Hilda’s “purity of heart and life,” untouchable to the corrupt, ordinary men who live in impure city of Rome below.[21] The juxtaposition of Hilda’s phallic tower home and the “maiden elevation” of her fair young self, dressed in white and tending the Virgin’s shrine, emphasises her virginal status. [22]

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Harriet Hosmer surrounded by her workshop assistants at her Rome studio (1861)

In The Marble Faun, both of the female characters are decisively heterosexual, with Miriam paired with Donatello, and Hilda eventually marrying Kenyon.[23] However, the sexuality of the female American expatriate sculptors was varied. Although there were women who would settle into heterosexual relationships, a great number of women would remain celibate, in order to ensure their dedication to their art.[24] Harriet Hosmer was a “faithful worshipper of celibacy” for a period of her time in Rome, conscious of the fact that if she were to marry a man, she would no longer be able to be loyal to her true passion of sculpture.[25]

Most of the women in Rome distanced themselves from heterosexual relationships.[26] There were many different examples of same-sex relationships experienced by the female sculptors, and these can be read along a continuum of sexual behaviour.[27] These relationships ranged from non-sexual romantic friendships with other women; to a domestically bound, romantic and sexual relationship that is much like a modern day lesbian relationship.[28] These same-sex relationships were considered public, and often women would live in all-female households, or with their de-facto significant other.[29]

As noble as Harriet Hosmer’s plans to remain faithful to celibacy were, this changed when she met Lady Louisa Ashburton, and her determination to refrain from “consolidating [the] knot” was eschewed for their relationship.[30] Hosmer and Ashburton soon assumed roles much like those of husband and wife, and their romantic friendship extended into a romantic and sexual relationship, with letters detailing their lives and references to sleeping together.[31]

These expatriate women operated outside of the control of patriarchal influence, and this was threatening to the men they were in contact with, both other artists, and the writers such as Hawthorne. Hawthorne’s anxiety over the danger of feminine impurity can be read in the female characters of The Marble Faun, and his depiction of what he deemed as proper femininity is contradictory to the lives that the female American expatriate sculptors often lead.

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 5.09.52 pmA caricature of Harriet Hosmer as an overzealous feminist

Sexism

“[Harriet Hosmer] has surmounted all the difficulties of her position as woman and artist”—Matilda Hayes, April 1856 [32]

In the 19th century, people widely agreed that sculptors were the most highly regarded American artists.[33] This is demonstrated by Thomas Cole, an American painter, who noted that “it seems to me that sculpture has risen above par, of late: painters are [considered] but an inferior grade of artists.”[34] It is therefore unsurprising that Nathaniel Hawthorne was also a great admirer of sculpture work, and he believed that “no masterpiece of the painters could rival… the highest achievement of the sculptor[s].”[35] With these thoughts in mind, the fact that Hawthorne wrote The Marble Faun with two female painters and two male sculptors is highly significant. Hawthorne is recorded having spent much time with the American expatriate sculptors in Rome, and his diaries from his travels there record his visits with both male and female sculptors.[36] As The Marble Faun is believed based on this group of expatriate sculptors, it is reasonable to conjecture that it was Hawthorne’s intentional decision to change Miriam and Hilda’s artistic profession to that of the lesser regarded painter. The threat of women entering and achieving greater success in this previously masculine dominated field was clearly threatening to both the other male sculptors, and the other American males as well.

Charmaine Nelson writes, “these female sculptors… [were] often regarded as threatening and transgressive by their male contemporaries.”[37] Many of these female sculptors challenged the male-dominated world of sculpture and the gender-based limitations that were imposed upon them, and this was difficult for the American men in Italy.[38] Female sculptors were often subject to ridicule and sexism from the male sculptors, who would attack the females with criticism on their personality, lifestyle, appearance, career, and the quality of their work. [39] Threatened by the thought that the female sculptors’ talent and growing success, the male sculptors accused the females of fraud.[40] The male sculptors stated that the female sculptors were not doing their own work, and instead leaving the brunt of the physical labour involved in sculpture for their assistants.[41] This climaxed for Hosmer when she was accused of fraud in the creation of her 1859 sculpture Zenobia.[42] Despite this, she was not intimidated. Hosmer widely rejected the idea that she ought to be an obedient and subservient female, and she instead wrote an article in 1864 entitled “The Process of Sculpture,” in which she explained the procedure of sculpting, and the utility of assistants for all sculptors, males and females alike.[43]

In The Marble Faun, Hawthorne’s depiction of the characters Miriam and Hilda as painters instead of sculptors can be considered almost derogatory. However, it is representative of the sexist opinions held at this time. The threat of the professional females was intimidating, and Hawthorne was not alone in diminishing the talent of these female sculptors.

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Harriet Hosmer

Conclusion

Hawthorne depicts the experiences of female American expatriate sculptors in 19th century Rome falsely in his text The Marble Faun. Despite the fact that Hawthorne’s novel was believed to be based on the group of American expatriate sculptors, the females are not depicted accurately. Although some references in the novel are explicit references to actual events at the time, Hawthorne’s artistic licence in his depiction of his characters Miriam and Hilda does no justice to the female sculptors. Hawthorne presents these characters in this falsified manner because this was the way he believed women ought to behave, and it was believed to be dangerous to stray from this lifestyle. Hosmer embraced her unconventional life, stating, “it never entered into my head that anybody could be so content on this Earth as I am [in Rome].”[44] In spite of the masculine anxiety of the “mob of scribbling women,” [45] Hosmer enjoyed a successful career in Rome, where other like-minded women living alternative lifestyles and enjoyed thriving careers surrounded her.

Footnotes

[1] Mollie Elizabeth Barnes, “Ambivalent States: Anglo-American Expatriates in Italy from 1848 to 1892,” (Athens, Georgia: PhD, The University of Georgia, 2012), p. 55; Kate Culkin, Harriet Hosmer: A Cultural Biography, (Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 2010), p. 98; John Carlos Rowe, “Hawthorne’s Ghost in James’s Italy,” Roman Holidays, eds. Robert K. Martin and Leland S. Person, (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2005), pp. 77-78.

[2] Cornelia Carr, Harriet Hosmer: Letters and Memories, (New York: Moffat, Yard and Company, 1912), p. 35.

[3] Deborah Barker, Aesthetics and Gender in American Literature: Portraits of the Woman Artist, (Lewisberg: Bucknell University Press, 2000), pp. 67; 73.

[4] Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Illustrated Marble Faun, (Delmar: Scholars, Facsimiles, and Reprints, 1991 [1860]), p. 61; Barker, Aesthetics and Gender in American Literature: Portraits of the Woman Artist, p. 73.

[5] Todd Onderdonk, “The Marble Mother: Hawthorne’s Iconographies of the Feminine,” Studies in American Fiction, vol. 31, no. 1, (2003).

[6] Barker, Aesthetics and Gender in American Literature: Portraits of the Woman Artist, p. 67.

[7] Barker, Aesthetics and Gender in American Literature: Portraits of the Woman Artist, p. 67; 73.

[8] Onderdonk, “The Marble Mother: Hawthorne’s Iconographies of the Feminine.”

[9] Onderdonk, “The Marble Mother: Hawthorne’s Iconographies of the Feminine.”

[10] Carr, Harriet Hosmer: Letters and Memories, p. 35.

[11] Melissa Dabakis, A Sisterhood of Sculptors, (Philadelphia: Penn State University Press, 2014).

[12] Carr, Harriet Hosmer: Letters and Memories, p. 27.

[13] Sirpa A. Salenius, “US-American New Women in Italy 1853-1870,” Comparative Literature and Culture, vol. 14, no. 1, (2012), p. 2.

[14] Salenius, “US-American New Women in Italy 1853-1870,” p. 3.

[15] Vivien Green Fryd, “The ‘Ghosting’ of Incest and Female Relations in Harriet Hosmer’s Beatrice Cenci,” Art Bulletin, vol. 88, no. 2 (June 2006), p. 305; Salenius, “US-American New Women in Italy 1853-1870,” p. 3.

[16] Martha Vicinus, “Laocoöning in Rome: Harriet Hosmer and romantic friendship,” Women’s Writing, vol. 10, no. 2, (2003), p. 359.

[17] Dabakis, A Sisterhood of Sculptors.

[18] Hawthorne, The Illustrated Marble Faun, p. 61.

[19] Hawthorne, The Illustrated Marble Faun, pp. 75-76.

[20] Hawthorne, The Illustrated Marble Faun, p. 73.

[21] Hawthorne, The Illustrated Marble Faun, p. 73; Onderdonk, “The Marble Mother: Hawthorne’s Iconographies of the Feminine.”

[22] Onderdonk, “The Marble Mother: Hawthorne’s Iconographies of the Feminine.”

[23] Hawthorne, The Illustrated Marble Faun, p. 282.

[24] Charmaine A. Nelson, “Dismembering the Flock: Difference and the ‘Lady Artists,’” The Color of Stone, (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2007), p. 10.

[25] Carr, Harriet Hosmer: Letters and Memories, p. 35.

[26] Dabakis, A Sisterhood of Sculptors.

[27] Dabakis, A Sisterhood of Sculptors.

[28] Dabakis, A Sisterhood of Sculptors.

[29] Dabakis, A Sisterhood of Sculptors.

[30] Vicinus, “Laocoöning in Rome: Harriet Hosmer and romantic friendship,” p. 359.

[31] Vicinus, “Laocoöning in Rome: Harriet Hosmer and romantic friendship,” p. 359.

[32] Carr, Harriet Hosmer: Letters and Memories, p. 70.

[33] Dabakis, A Sisterhood of Sculptors.

[34] Dabakis, A Sisterhood of Sculptors.

[35] Caroline Tricknor, Hawthorne and his Publisher, (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1913), p. 218.

[36] Nathaniel Hawthorne, Passages from the French and Italian Notebooks of Nathaniel Hawthorne Volume I, (London: Strahan & Co., 1871), pp. 83; 189-191.

[37] Nelson, “Dismembering the Flock: Difference and the ‘Lady Artists,’” p. 38.

[38] Salenius, “US-American New Women in Italy 1853-1870,” p. 2.

[39] Lisa Merrill, “‘Old Maids, Sister-Artists, and Aesthetes’: Charlotte Cushman and her circle of ‘jolly bachelors’ construct an expatriate women’s community in Rome,” Women’s Writing, vol. 10, no. 2, (2003), p. 377; Salenius, “US-American New Women in Italy 1853-1870,” p. 3.

[40] Salenius, “US-American New Women in Italy 1853-1870,” p. 3; John Carlos Rowe, “Hawthorne’s Ghost in James’s Italy,” Roman Holidays, eds. Robert K. Martin and Leland S. Person, (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2005), p. 76.

[41] Salenius, “US-American New Women in Italy 1853-1870,” p. 3.

[42] Nelson, “Dismembering the Flock: Difference and the ‘Lady Artists,’” p. 39.

[43] Salenius, “US-American New Women in Italy 1853-1870,” p. 2.

[44] Carr, Harriet Hosmer: Letters and Memories, p. 27.

[45] Tricknor, Hawthorne and his Publisher, p. 76.

References

Barker, Deborah, Aesthetics and Gender in American Literature: Portraits of the Woman Artist, (Lewisberg: Bucknell University Press, 2000).

Barnes, Mollie Elizabeth, “Ambivalent States: Anglo-American Expatriates in Italy from 1848 to 1892,” (Athens, Georgia: PhD, The University of Georgia, 2012).

Carr, Cornelia, Harriet Hosmer: Letters and Memories, (New York: Moffat, Yard and Company, 1912).

Culkin, Kate, Harriet Hosmer: A Cultural Biography, (Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 2010).

Dabakis, Melissa, A Sisterhood of Sculptors, (Philadelphia: Penn State University Press, 2014).

Fryd, Vivien Green, “The ‘Ghosting’ of Incest and Female Relations in Harriet Hosmer’s Beatrice Cenci,” Art Bulletin, vol. 88, no. 2 (June 2006), pp. 292-309.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel, The Illustrated Marble Faun, (Delmar: Scholars, Facsimiles, and Reprints, 1991 [1860]).

Hawthorne, Nathaniel, Passages from the French and Italian Notebooks of Nathaniel Hawthorne Volume I, (London: Strahan & Co., 1871).

Irwin, David, Neoclassicism, (London: Phaidon, 1997).

Mayo Roos, Jane, “Another Look at Henry James and the ‘White Marmorean Flock,’” Woman’s Art Journal, vol. 4, no. 1, (1983), pp. 29-34.

Merrill, Lisa, “‘Old Maids, Sister-Artists, and Aesthetes’: Charlotte Cushman and her circle of ‘jolly bachelors’ construct an expatriate women’s community in Rome,” Women’s Writing, vol. 10, no. 2, (2003), pp. 367-383.

Nelson, Charmaine A., “Dismembering the Flock: Difference and the ‘Lady Artists,’” The Color of Stone, (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2007), pp. 3-44.

Onderdonk, Todd, “The Marble Mother: Hawthorne’s Iconographies of the Feminine,” Studies in American Fiction, vol. 31, no. 1, (2003), pp. 73-101.

Rowe, John Carlos, “Hawthorne’s Ghost in James’s Italy,” Roman Holidays, eds. Robert K. Martin and Leland S. Person, (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2005), pp. 73-106.

Salenius, Sirpa A., “US-American New Women in Italy 1853-1870,” Comparative Literature and Culture, vol. 14, no. 1, (2012), pp. 2-8.

Stern, Milton R., Contexts for Hawthorne, (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991).

Tricknor, Caroline, Hawthorne and his Publisher, (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1913).

Vicinus, Martha, “Laocoöning in Rome: Harriet Hosmer and romantic friendship,” Women’s Writing, vol. 10, no. 2, (2003), pp. 353-366.

Natalie Carfora

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