Women In History – Female Sculptors

female sculptors

Did you know that a woman was the youngest artist to ever get a commission for a statue from the U.S. Government? Although women sculptors with professional careers were rare until recently in our country’s history, that doesn’t mean they were non-existent. Let’s learn about some of these artistic pioneers.

Harriet Goodhue Hosmer

Harriet Goodhue Hosmer is considered the first American female career sculptor. She studied anatomy with her physician father – a very unusual occurrence at this time in our country’s history; this laid a foundation for her sculpting. After studying modeling in Boston, she went to Rome, Italy, where from 1853-1860 she was able to study sculpting using live models. She associated with other artists and writers, including Vinnie Ream and Edmonia Lewis. At a time when women were not educated in the same manner as men and when women had few rights, Hosmer said “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.” Hosmer pioneered a technique to convert limestone into marble and devised new sculpting processes. Her sculpture, Puck and Owl, is featured on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail.

Vinnie Ream Hoxie

The first woman and the youngest artist to get a commission for a sculpture from the U.S. Government, Vinnie Ream Hoxie not only sculpted the full-size status of Abraham Lincoln that stands in the U.S. Capitol rotunda; she also built the first major monument to a U.S. Navy officer that was in Washington, DC. Further, she designed the first free-standing statue featuring a Native American (Sequoyah) that was placed at the Capitol in Statuary Hall. Hoxie received the commission for the Lincoln sculpture after the Civil War, in 1866. The statue was unveiled in 1871, when she was 23 years old.

Previously the talented Hoxie, who wrote, sang and sculpted, had worked for the Federal Government as a clerk in the Dead Letter Office, where she was one of the first women to be so employed. She helped wounded soldiers write letters; she also gave concerts in hospitals and churches during the Civil War. Hoxie discovered her love of sculpting when she was in her teens. Buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Hoxie’s talents were celebrated through the issuance of a U.S. postage stamp featuring her sculpture of Sequoyah. Vinita, Oklahoma is named in her honor.

Edmonia Lewis

Sculptor Edmonia Lewis’ heritage is both African American and Native American. It is thought that she was born in upstate New York. After her education at Oberlin College, she taught sculpture in Boston and received acclaim in 1864 with her bust of Colonel Robert Shaw. Colonel Shaw is remembered for his leadership when he died leading the all-black 54th Massachusetts Regiment during the Civil War. Lewis moved to Rome, Italy with the proceeds from the sale of this sculpture, where she set up a studio.

Lewis’ works in Rome primarily followed religious and classical themes. Her 1867 work, Forever Free, shows a black man and a black woman emerging from slavery. Other pieces reflect her Native American roots. Her classical pieces included busts of American leaders such as Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln. Her sculpture, Death of Cleopatra, received critical acclaim at two showings in 1876 and 1888. For many years, both Lewis and her art were lost to history and forgotten. Happily, that is no longer the case. Forever Free is among the pieces of her work that are now permanently housed at the Howard University Gallery of Art. The Smithsonian American Art Museum permanently houses other pieces of her work, including Death of Cleopatra.

Louise Nevelson

One of the most important figures in twentieth century sculpture, Louise Nevelson emigrated to the U.S. from Russia with her family, in the early 1900s. She decided to study sculpture around the age of nine after seeing a plaster cast of Joan of Arc. Nevelson began art lessons in New York City full time in 1929 and later studied in Germany as well. Her first solo exhibition occurred in 1941. Although she often struggled financially, Nevelson persisted and in 1958 was featured on the cover of Life magazine. Her sculptures by that time were massive in scale, often made of wood or found objects, and monochromatic. In 1967, the Whitney Museum in New York City, which had purchased some of her sculpture, hosted a retrospective of her work including her lithographs and sculpture. Her childhood home in Maine is now an art museum featuring her works. Her sculptures have been featured on U.S. postage stamps.

Ruth Duckworth

Born in Germany, Ruth Duckworth left the country in 1936 to escape Nazi restrictions; she then studied art in England. Wanting to study each of drawing, painting and sculpting (as Michelangelo had done all three), she became particularly interested in ceramics. In 1964, she was offered a teaching post at the University of Chicago, and eventually settled permanently in the U.S. Her primary art form became abstract ceramics, many pieces of which are untitled. A retrospective of her work opened in 2005 at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City. A documentary has been made on her life.

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Maya Lin

Known both for her sculpture and her land art, architect Maya Lin won the competition for the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1981, while she was still an undergraduate student at Yale University. Her design was selected from more than 1,400 entries. Although her memorial sculpture was highly controversial in the 1980s, in 2007 the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was named #10 on the list of America’s Favorite Architecture. Today it is considered one of the influential memorials built after World War II.

Lin’s body of work consists of memorials, public and private buildings, landscape and sculpture. She designed the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama (1989). Her work reflects significant environmental awareness; she focuses on the relationships that people have with their environment. Much of her recent work makes a significant statement as she concentrates on global warming, endangered bodies of water and animals faced with extinction. Lin has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

These women sculptors, as well as many other women, almost all of whom we have not heard about nor learned about in school, are profiled in our book, Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America. Help us by continuing to tell the stories of the women who came before us, on whose shoulders we all stand. Tell young women especially so they understand that they can dream BIG, and then make their dreams a reality.

Jill Tietjen
Author: Jill Tietjen

Jill S. Tietjen, PE, is an author, national speaker, and an electrical engineer. After 40 years in the electric utility industry, her professional focus is now on women’s advocacy, worldwide. She blogs for The Huffington Post, speaks nationally on the accomplishments of women, nominates women for awards, and continues to write books (8 published to date), following in the footsteps of her bestselling and award-winning book, Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America (written with Charlotte Waisman). She is a frequent keynote speaker as her positive energy and her ability to relate to the audience result in inspired and energized listeners. The recipient of many awards, her induction into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 2010 remains one of her most treasured.

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