The Psychic Sculptor

She was one of the world’s most famous artists. But it was the spirit world that truly called to her.

Harriet Hosmer (left) and her Medusa sculpture in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

By Tim Gihring

One morning, in the 1850s, Harriet Hosmer wakes up and senses someone in the room. It’s 5 o clock. She’s sleeping behind a tall screen that wraps around her bed. The doors to her room are locked.

She asks if anyone is there. And suddenly someone is there, now in front of the screen, before her. It’s her former maid, Rosa.

Hosmer is in Rome, where she has become the leading American sculptor of her generation while only in her twenties. Rosa speaks to her in Italian, “Adesso sono contento; adesso sono felice.” Now I am content, now I am happy.

And then, she’s gone.

Hosmer leaps out of bed. She looks behind the curtain. She looks in the closet. No Rosa.

In fact, Rosa hadn’t worked there in some time, since becoming sick with tuberculosis. Hosmer had gone to see her the day before; she seemed to be getting better.

Hosmer sends a messenger to ask about her, and word comes back that Rosa had died that morning, at exactly 5 o‘ clock.

Hosmer is not surprised. When she later tells this story to the British prime minister, and also to a writer who puts it in the Atlantic magazine, she says the vision was as real as anything she’s ever experienced. In fact, things like this, she says, have been happening to her all her life.

When Harriet Hosmer is born, her family begins dying. First her mother, then her two infant brothers, and finally her older sister. Before she’s five, tuberculosis takes them all.

Eventually, in the 1830s, it’s just Hattie and her father. And her father isn’t about to let Hattie get away, too. He’s a doctor, in Watertown, Massachusetts, a small town about six miles from Boston, and he puts Hattie on an outdoor exercise regimen that’s essentially what you’d do for a boy at the time. He gives her a horse and a boat and a pistol.

Hattie learns to ride the horse and paddle the boat and shoot the pistol, and she does all of them with an almost manic energy. She shoots small animals and stuffs them and fills her room with dead birds and bats and beetles. In a little clay pit under a riverbank, what she calls her “secret studio,” she begins modeling animals and people. Learning the shape of things, making a world of her own.

But she’s getting kicked out of one school after another. Maybe because she can’t stop doing things like uncoupling train cars and putting a death notice for a very-much-alive neighbor in the newspaper, apparently. So, the good doctor sends her away, about 7 miles from home, to Mrs. Sedgwick’s progressive school. Elizabeth Sedgwick is no ordinary teacher, and her students are often no ordinary kids. She tells the doctor, “I have a reputation for training wild colts, and I will try this one.”

At Mrs. Sedgwick’s, Hosmer learns Latin, Greek, French, and some hygiene. She also learns what it means to be original, which isn’t something girls were usually taught. The Sedgwick house, dubbed The Hive, is a gathering place for people like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne — true originals. And when Hosmer graduates, in 1849, she decides to become something really original for a woman then: a sculptor.

The year before, over in New York state, the Fox sisters — Kate and Maggie — had claimed to hear mysterious noises in their house. They were 11 and 14 at the time, and after daring a spirit to repeat their rappings on the floor — knock, knock, knock — they said they were getting a response.

The Fox sisters, Margaret (left) and Catherine (right).

They soon took their show on the road, asking spirits yes or no questions, or to spell out their answers in code. The Rochester Rappings, they’re called, and like everyone else Hosmer is surely aware of them. In fact, after burying most of her family in just a few years, she’s sympathetic to the idea that the line between the living and the dead is awfully thin.

When opportunity knocks, as it were — a chance to study the human body up close and personal with an anatomy professor in St. Louis, even though human dissection is illegal at the time — Hosmer is okay with that. And when she finds out how the professor is getting these bodies for dissection, that he goes out at night with a shovel to the local cemeteries and digs them up, and requires his students to do the same, she’s evidently okay with that, too.

Hosmer arrives in St. Louis in 1850. She sits in the gallery at the Missouri Medical College, the only woman up there, wearing a little brown bonnet. Dr. Joseph Nash McDowell wheels a cadaver into the center of the room, and starts slicing.

McDowell is a body snatcher and a medium, who believes he can communicate with the dead. He’s something of a ghostbuster, too, on call in St. Louis.

He also has 1,400 rifles and three cannons in the upper room of the medical school. The year before Hosmer arrived, when a mob armed with clubs and axes stormed the school claiming the professor has murdered a woman who disappeared, he was prepared to fight back.

An illustration of body-snatching, a controversial means of studying anatomy in the 19th century.

But McDowell is no killer. He’s a Spiritualist, the new movement that’s sweeping the country in the wake of the Fox sisters. After death, he believes, there’s no judgement. No one sending you to heaven or hell. There’s only release, into a kind of parallel existence, in which you can move freely through time and space — and communicate, if you choose, with the living.

With all the incredible advances in understanding electricity and magnetism, McDowell is convinced that soon we’ll understand not just this world but that other one. Because the same laws of science will apply. And the supernatural will seem, well, natural.

Hosmer spends nine months in St. Louis, and at the end she believes this, too. She is a Spiritualist.

It’s an appealing idea, especially to women then. Most of the mediums and leaders of seances are women. Women shut out of church leadership and public leadership. Women with few rights to speak of. Because it’s liberating. Indeed, some of the first converts are Quakers, who are also abolitionists. Forget about the petty dictates of man, about who can do what — there’s a bigger law out there, they believe, a universal law that will set your soul free.

After returning to Massachusetts, Hosmer makes an incredible bust of Hesper, the personification of the evening star that dies at first light, only to be reborn as the morning star. And then she leaves for Rome, with her father, in 1852.

She’s 22 years old. She has her diploma in anatomy and two daguerrotypes of her Hesper sculpture. When she gets to Rome, she presents herself to John Gibson, the Welsh neoclassical sculptor. He’s the best there is, among the expats, and doesn’t usually take on students. But then she shows him her work.

Hosmer has come to Rome not just with her father but also Elizabeth Cushman, the first real celebrity actress. They had met in Boston, and, in Paris on their way over, they picked up Cushman’s girlfriend, Matilda Hays, whom everyone calls Max. When the group lands in Rome, the women all live together in the colony of expat artists. They call themselves the Jolly Bachelors. And to get Hosmer’s dad in the mix, they call him Elizabeth.

In her first years in Rome, Hosmer works with Gibson and then in her own studio from early in the morning to late at night. Once, a man asks what she’s doing out by herself, and she spins around and says, “You ask my reason for walking so late? This is my reason,” and she strikes him across the face with her iron-tipped umbrella.

Hosmer sculpted the clasped hands of her expat friends Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. This bronze cast is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

After a year or so, she inevitably meets the spiritual core of the colony, the poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her husband, Robert, whose house is the nightly salon. Elizabeth describes her as “very clever and very strange,” living in a house with other “emancipated women.” Hosmer and Hays, she says, both have the gift of spirit writing, in which their hands move automatically, guided by spirits.

One day, in the spring of 1854, Hosmer tells Elizabeth that “as she was entering her bedroom, a spirit some three feet high, exquisitely formed, came running, dancing to her, from the furthest corner of the room close up to her knees.” When she bent down to it, it vanished.

That same year, in 1854, Hosmer begins working on her Medusa, now at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and currently in the exhibition “Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art.”

The story of Medusa goes like this: Medusa is a normal human being with some incredibly gorgeous hair. One day she goes to the temple of Minerva, to worship the goddess of wisdom, and Neptune shows up and rapes her.

Minerva is appalled. Not because Neptune raped Medusa but because he raped her in Minerva’s temple. So, she takes it out on Medusa, turning her beautiful hair into snakes. Which prompts Perseus to come along, wanting to be a hero, and chop off her head.

Hosmer’s Medusa sculpture, circa 1854, in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Most male artists were like, well, that’s what you get, Medusa. Shouldn’t have been so tempting. And they show Medusa as this monster seductress with a head full of phallic snakes, the ultimate femme fatale.

Hosmer has a different idea. She dispatches a man to the suburbs of Rome to bring her a snake, alive. She chloroforms it and makes a cast. And when she models Medusa’s head full of snakes, it looks real. And when she models Medusa’s face, it looks real too — a look of horror just as her hair is beginning to turn serpentine.

Hosmer makes her sympathetic Medusa and then another woman of myth, Daphne, who was running from the rapacious Apollo when her father kindly turned her into a tree. The gods, Hosmer seems to say, are man’s invention and haven’t done women any favors. The spirits, on the other hand, are another matter.

After a few years in Rome, for all her promise, Hosmer is running out of money — her father’s money. So she begins making a Puck. The little pixie in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The “merry wanderer of the night.”

He’s a lighthearted piece; one viewer calls it “a laugh in marble.” Hosmer hopes he will make her some money. And he does. The Prince of Wales buys the original and soon Hosmer is making about 30 copies.

One of Hosmer’s Puck sculptures, in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, perhaps inspired by a spirit encounter.

On one level, her Puck is a harmless sprite, a naked little cherub with wings, sitting on a toadstool. Not going to offend any good Christians. The Prince of Wales, apparently, tells her, “Oh Miss Hosmer, you have such a talent for toes!”

But as the art historian Charles Colbert points out in his writing on Hosmer and Spiritualism, there’s nothing in Shakespeare about Puck on a toadstool with a beetle in one hand and a lizard in the other. Hosmer seems to have dipped into Nordic folklore for those ideas.

Also, her Puck is some 30 inches high. He’s playful, mysterious. He is, it seems, the little spirit who came to visit Hosmer in her bedroom. A dead boy, most likely, still boyish and spirited, as it were — happy in the afterlife.

Hosmer is now famous, and increasingly well off. Elizabeth Browning says she’s going out three times in an evening, where before she would go home at 10 o’clock, if she left home at all.

Eventually, the jolly bachelors fall out over jealousies. Hosmer takes up with the Lady Ashburton in England. And when Elizabeth Browning dies, in 1861, the party is largely over.

Hosmer, by this time, has bigger things in mind. In 1875, she publishes a play called 1975: A Prophetic Drama, about a couple of men mysteriously mummified in 1875 who wake up a hundred years later in the Egyptian rooms of the British Museum.

By the 1970s, she figures, we will have figured a few things out. In her story, there is a female prime minister of Britain, a female president of the United States, and something called a patent composite reflector, which enables the transmission of thought — so now everyone’s a psychic.

Hosmer writes this science fiction while she’s working on an invention of her own: a perpetual motion machine, powered by magnets. A motor that can run forever. Which you’re going to need for interplanetary space travel, the ultimate Spiritualist goal. What good is leaving your earthly body, after all, if you can’t leave Earth?

For the next 20 years, this is what Hosmer works on. Tinkering. First at Lady Ashburton’s place in Britain, and then back in the States. Her money is drying up, her friends are disappearing, she’s hardly sculpting anymore.

When she eventually leaves Lady Ashburton, her machine is supposed to be on the next steamer to the States, but it never comes, so she goes back to get it. It means that much to her.

A drawing of Hosmer’s perpetual motion machine, submitted with her patent application.

She keeps saying the machine will be done in a couple weeks. And then a couple years go by, and then a couple decades.

In her play about 1975, one of the characters says that the greatest impediment to progress is a mind unwilling to confront its own potential. Hosmer is not about to walk away from her potential. Even if some people say that’s exactly what she’s doing.

She moves back home, to Massachusetts. And finally she files for a patent, for a perpetual motion machine. It looks like a giant wheel, with three pendulums attached that maybe flop from side to side, like a self-winding clock. It doesn’t really work, in any case. Not forever. It certainly won’t get you to outer space.

Undeterred, Hosmer submits a plan to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, in Chicago: Build a tall spire with a sphere on top, made of glass and lit from inside. Attach long metal arms with little round cars at the end, cars that you can ride as they rotate around the sphere.

Her plan is never built. She loses out to the first Ferris Wheel, which gets you up high, while Hosmer would have gotten you spiritually high.

In her plan, the sphere is the sun, of course, and the cars are the planets. And as you’re sitting out there, going around the sun, you would get, as Hosmer puts it, “the sensation of inhabiting other worlds than our own and of viewing our own planet, Earth, from a new point in space.”

For a few minutes, you could imagine yourself breaking free, going to the other side — whatever that means to you. And that could make all the difference.

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