Harriet Hosmer and the Triumph over Captivity

Although some writers have suggested that it may be possible to interpret images and narratives of captivity in a counter-intuitive fashion–to see them as female examples of the heroic male myth, women who survive in adversity–it is not clear that women living in the 18th and 19th centuries did see them that way.  Certainly, the dominant message of a captive would seem to be powerlessness, and it is not until the middle of the 19th century that a female artist offers a specific image to counter the powerless female.  This reversal is done with a female subject who serves a dual role–she was both a queen and a captive, so it may be the case that we will find power and captivity explicitly linked in this work.  It may have been a very canny decision on Hosmer’s part to choose a subject which conformed to traditional images and expectations of women even as she offered something a little different.

three views of the female captive:

Hiram Powers: The Greek Slave, 1843-6 Erastus Palmer: The White Captive, 1859 Harriet Hosmer: Zenobia in Chains, 1859

In order to understand the impact of these sculptures, we need to understand the viewing context of the 19th century.  An important part of this context was the fact that artists and/or critics generally provided viewers with written instructions or guides telling them what the story behind the work was and suggesting the appropriate response to make to the art work.  When Hiram Powers made his Greek Slave, and suggested that the story was based on the capture of a Christian Greek woman by barbarous Turks, he gave his audience a nude woman, modestly covering her sex, helpless because of the chains, her face turned to the side to enhance her sense of modesty and vulnerability, with a cross hanging from her clothing to suggest her faith in God.  Powers managed to bring together a subversive interest in pornography, the morally righteous indignation of a country which identified with other countries fighting for independence, and the vulnerable eroticism of the classical Greek nude.
Powers’ Greek Slave was not the only statue to exploit this ability of sculpture to suggest more than the viewer could actually see and to arouse feelings which might normally be repressed in the guise of a narrative which ultimately bestows honor on them.  Palmer's White Captive is clearly based on Powers' statue, despite the greater sense of naturalism and the implication that she has been captured by Indians.  Even Hosmer seems to have had Powers in mind when she made her own statue.

Harriet Hosmer

portrait of Harriet Hosmer (painting by unknown artist) Medusa, 1854

Hosmer was financially secure, had patrons who were also friends, and could choose subjects of interest to herself.  The subjects she chose were usually mythological or romantic heroines, although these heroines were victims.  When the subject is someone who also has a demonic side, such as Medusa, Hosmer generally chose the moment of defeat, the moment when Medusa was being transformed from a beautiful woman into a woman with snakes writhing around her head and breasts, still touched with the aura of desirability but knowing that it is rapidly leaving her.  The story continues with Medusa becoming capable of destroying men; we don’t see that here but if we know the story, we can imagine the eventually complete transformation.  To the extent that viewers were captivated by the head, then Medusa had already begun to be a woman of dreaded power.  We might wonder if Hosmer was making an ironic pun--Medusa, here depicted in marble by a female sculptor, was capable of turning men to stone.

Beatrice Cenci, 1854 Oenone, 1855

Oenone, the daughter of the river god, was married to Paris.  When Paris deserted her for Helen of Troy, Oenone dreamt of her revenge against him and Troy.  She did achieve her goal, but threw herself onto Paris's funeral pyre, ultimately dying with him.  In Hosmer's sculpture, which moment is it that we see?  The desolate woman who has been abandoned?  Or the woman who contemplates both her revenge and her eventual suicide?  Hosmer doesn't tell us and she doesn't show us Oenone's face, so we can only guess.  But by leaving it to us, Hosmer gives Oenone greater power than that of a victim.
Beatrice Cenci is a subject which seems to move Hosmer closer to the subject of the captive.  Sexually abused and imprisoned by her father, Beatrice eventually murdered him, an act for which she paid with her life.  When Hosmer chose to make Beatrice her subject, she decided to show her sleeping, surely at her most vulnerable.  Her flowing robe certainly reveals the body underneath but her body is modestly arranged and to the extent that her flesh is visible, it can be excused by the fact that she was asleep.  The position, in fact, with the somewhat awry dress, serves to enhance her vulnerability, fragility and innocence.  Although she is sleeping on stone, a sign of her imprisonment, it is not difficult to imagine that she has swooned, is unconscious and will never awaken.  

two views of Zenobia in Chains (1859):

Hosmer’s largest statue, her most complete confrontation with the issue of captivity and power, was Zenobia.  Zenobia was Queen of Palmyra for six years after her husband died.  She led her country in war against imperial Rome but was defeated.  Rather than surrendering, she eluded capture for a while.  Eventually the Romans caught her and forced her to march through the city in chains.  Although the Romans executed her counselors, her life was spared.  Well before Hosmer tackled her subject, Zenobia had been a woman of mystery–her true ancestry was debated (was she an Egyptian, related to Cleopatra), the extent to which she might have bargained for her own life by giving up her counselors was not known, or did she, like Cleopatra, use sex to save herself.
Although Powers’ Greek Slave is the statue to which Hosmer seems to be responding, the first decision she makes immediately sets Zenobia apart.  The Greek slave is nude and the chains reinforce her vulnerability.  Zenobia is also chained but in contrast to the stories which described her chains as so heavy that servants had to carry them, she lifts them with one hand.  Wearing a long dress and cloak, she conveys an image of strength and solidity.  She is regal in her bearing, not vulnerable as the chains might lead us to suspect.  She redefines the nature of imprisonment as a test which she must overcome in order to remain in control of her destiny.
In some respects, it wasn’t only Zenobia who redefined the meaning of imprisonment.  Harriet Hosmer did also and she did in a way which suggests the union of the familiar and popular captivity narrative with a new one: triumph over adversity.  Generally a melodramatic and sentimental story, which will be very popular with women, it might also be understood in a less literal way: the conditions of womanhood (the female sphere of life) were inherently adversarial for the strong woman.  Living her life as a successful artist was a triumph over adversity; if we see the narrative of Zenobia in that light, then we can only see Hosmer's choice of subject as a radical decision.