Harriet Hosmer, Zenobia in Chains, 1859
By Erin Monroe, Robert H. Schutz, Jr., Associate Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture
The fabled queen Zenobia ruled Palmyra (present-day Syria) for six years following the assassination of her husband king Odenathus in 267 CE. Known for her courage and fortitude, Zenobia conquered Egypt and reigned until Roman forces overpowered her armies and captured her. Emperor Aurelian marched her in chains as part of his triumphal procession through Rome. Harriet Hosmer’s nineteenth-century marble sculpture of Zenobia is often interpreted as an early example of feminist art.
Hosmer’s upbringing defied many social conventions and expectations for women and girls in the nineteenth century. She was raised by her father, Dr. Hiram Hosmer, an eminent physician, following the loss of her mother to tuberculosis. Dr. Hosmer encouraged Harriet to spend time outdoors, to foster good health. She was physically active and enjoyed rowing, swimming, riding horses, and hunting. Confident and ambitious, when she decided to pursue a career as a sculptor her options were limited because she was female. The schools in Boston barred women from studying anatomy, one of the foundational courses required for the medium. Her father sent her to Saint Louis to study at the Missouri Medical College.
After graduating in 1852, Hosmer traveled to Rome, a leading destination for many American sculptors at the time. From 1853 to 1860, she became a central figure working among a group of fellow female neoclassical sculptors. Collectively, these women held strong beliefs about equality and were advocates for women’s rights and the abolitionist cause. Against the backdrop of repressive social conditions, Hosmer expressed her views by selecting female icons from mythology, literature, and history, such as Daphne, Medusa, and Zenobia.
For the design of Zenobia, Hosmer thoroughly researched the ancient queen for almost two years. In the fall of 1857, Hosmer claimed “her whole soul was filled with Zenobia” as she searched for visuals and descriptions in various libraries, in the United States and Europe, “to find every allusion to her.”[i] In Italy, she continued to study the poses and attributes of female archetypes found in classical statuary—note the head of Medusa she incorporated into the medallion on her belt—and ancient coins featuring Zenobia’s likeness.
Hosmer was also aware of Zenobia through contemporary literary examples, including Anna Jameson’s Celebrated Female Sovereigns; William Ware’s Zenobia; or the Fall of Palmrya; and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, in which the lead character was aptly named Zenobia.
In 1859, Hosmer began sculpting a seven-foot-tall Zenobia in marble. The Wadsworth’s sculpture is one of four known smaller versions Hosmer made. Unlike the romanticized versions envisioned by male creators, Hosmer imparted a different message through her sculpture. Zenobia’s head is slightly bowed, her eyes downcast, yet her expression remains calm as she carries her chains with ease. Zenobia possesses dignity and fortitude, rather than defeat.
A successful and independent female, Hosmer was pioneering and unconventional for her time. She achieved professional success in the face of a male-dominated milieu which inspired fellow female artists. Upholding strong feminist beliefs, she once wrote, “I honor every woman who has strength enough to step out of the beaten path when she feels that her walk lies in another.”
[i] Lydia Marie Child, “Miss Hosmer’s Zenobia,” Boston Saturday Gazette, February 4, 1865, reproduced in Kate Culkin, Harriet Hosmer: A Cultural Biography. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010.