Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 9, 2017
Melissa Dabakis A Sisterhood of Sculptors: American Artists in Nineteenth-Century Rome University Park: Penn State University Press, 2014. 304 pp.; 100 b/w ills. Paper $29.95 (9780271062204)

“I wouldn’t live anywhere else but Rome,” gushed Harriet Hosmer in a letter in 1854. “I can learn more and do more here, in one year, than I could in America in ten” (35). Hosmer was among a few dozen American women sculptors who sought training in Rome during the third quarter of the nineteenth century, the subject of Melissa Dabakis’s A Sisterhood of Sculptors: American Artists in Nineteenth-Century Rome. The project offers a new contribution to the study of American artists working in international contexts, to the body of scholarship on American sculpture and its connections with political history, and to the discussion of gender in art history. By putting sculptural production in dialogue with literature, visual culture, and the political and social histories of Rome and the United States, Dabakis argues that Rome served as a complex site for gender politics and constructions of American culture. In its focus on the years between 1850 and 1876, A Sisterhood of Sculptors links artistic production with the politics of Italian unification and the U.S. era of slavery, civil war, and debates about suffrage. Dabakis places artists, both well-known and less studied, into conversation with the wider practice of American tourism in Rome, and uses mass-culture media to furnish a context for the U.S. reception of their sculptures. She traces Rome as a welcoming site for feminine creativity but also addresses the challenges in “the gendered nature of creativity and expatriation” that women artists faced in their attempts to forge professional careers (3).

Dabakis develops a thematic structure around gender (section 1), Italian politics (section 2), and U.S. politics (section 3) that links aesthetics and iconographic choices with social discourse. The first section considers how women artists negotiated expectations and performed a range of gender identities abroad through costume, comportment, the construction of studio spaces, and manipulation of the style of neoclassicism. The second section interprets the response of American women sculptors to the politics of Rome in the midst of the Risorgimento, in which their work reveals international power structures, discourses around cultural colonization, and often contradictory U.S. stereotypes about Roman culture. The third section analyzes the engagement of American women sculptors with U.S. politics, particularly the anti-slavery moment (focusing on Anne Whitney’s Ethiopia, 1862–64; and Edmonia Lewis’s Forever Free, 1867) and questions of female suffrage in public commissions for sculptures of Abraham Lincoln. This last section offers a strong bookend to the project that begins with an analysis of the discourses of femininity and liberation in Rome as a creative space and concludes with the interventions of their sculptures in contemporary U.S. politics.

Dabakis introduces her methodological apparatus as drawing from “feminist theory, cultural geography (the historical and social dimensions of place), and expatriate and post-colonial studies” (3). Like theorists Judith Butler and scholars Kirsten Swinth, Laura Prieto, and Kirstin Ringelberg, she enumerates the spectrum of strategies for gender performance that negotiated between social expectations of femininity and morality, homosociality/homosexuality, and domesticity. Dabakis makes a key contribution to gender studies within art history by tracing figures who exaggerated gender stereotypes to benefit their career, who bent societal constructions, and who struggled in their artistic reception because they overstepped the bounds of moral propriety. At the same time, the feminist frame of the text is somewhat compromised by Dabakis’s uses of the work of male artists as the introductory case study in four of the seven chapters. While these examples illuminate the key issues at stake, the structure subtly sidelines the work of women sculptors in political discourse.

Dabakis’s visual analysis of the sculptures is strong, thorough, and compelling, especially in noting details such as Whitney’s use of a loincloth on The Chaldean Shepherd (1862) to simultaneously conceal and draw attention to her male figure’s genitalia (115–16) or how Hosmer’s Oenone (1854–55) offered a range of idealism and sensual naturalism depending on one’s view of the sculpture (57–58). I wished for a similarly extended metaphorical reading of the mass-media images that are included in the book. For example, the engraving “Harriet Hosmer in Her Studio” (n.d.; fig. 23; 64) depicts a family approaching the artist on the stage with a curtain pulled aside in her studio. I wondered if Dabakis might note that the sculpture of the male bust is on the ground and tucked away into the shadow, while the spotlighted female bust is the centerpiece on the table, highlighting the gender of Hosmer’s subject. Artist and sculpture are also cohered in the other wonderful illustration that Dabakis includes, “The Prince of Wales in Miss Hosmer’s Studio,” published in Harper’s Weekly in 1859 (fig. 30; 82). The artist stands in profile parallel with her sculpture, as though in face-off with the viewers who approach. Here again in visual culture the strengths of female artist and female object converge under the scrutiny of the public in ways that reinforce Dabakis’s arguments about the sculptures.

With some important exceptions, it appears that most of the sculptures were exhibited only in the artists’ Roman studios or in the United States. This suggests that the work of American women sculptors in Rome was more a cultural performance for a U.S. audience than a transnational practice. Dabakis rarely considers the Italian reception of these artists’ work. For example, she notes that, “Even the Italian press was interested” (192) in Vinnie Ream’s sculpture of Lincoln shown in the artist’s studio. Were Italian art critics otherwise silent on these sculptures? While Dabakis argues in the introduction that “Rome offered women sculptors vital opportunities both to imagine and to re-create themselves as professional artists, using travel and expatriation as means to strengthen a sense of themselves as emboldened actors on an international stage” (5), the discourse surrounding them remains almost completely national, with Rome a stage for American projections.

The political questions are equally one-sided. If “Italian nationalists . . . looked to the United States as a model for an enlightened republican government” (5), were not Italian observers interested in the examples of American art produced in Rome within that framework? Dabakis analyzes the connections between Americans abroad and the Italian nationalist movement, but what of the reverse? Did the anti-slavery sculptures discussed in chapter 6 influence the Italian reception of American slavery within the discourse of the Risorgimento? Were there any connections between U.S. artists abroad and the Italian Macchiaioli, who were then exploring how to represent the nation in painting? Were Roman artists responding to the politics embedded within the work of these American women? Did subtle shifts toward a neoclassical naturalism affect sculptural production in Rome more broadly? In other words, is there cultural reciprocity or multi-directional artistic and political dialogue at work?

Dabakis presents American women sculptors as elite expatriates in Rome simultaneously restricted by their gender: “In unwittingly adopting a mentality of racial superiority, Anglo-American women experienced the freedoms of Roman life from an empowered political perspective. At the same time, most envisioned and supported a free Italian nation. These living contradictions demonstrated a type of transculturation whereby American women artists were transformed by their contact with a colonized Italy” (8). In the context of post-colonial theory, transculturation is typically used to show agency within a minority position in asymmetrical power relationships. Mary Louise Pratt describes “how subordinated or marginal groups select and invent from the materials transmitted to them by a dominant or metropolitan culture” (Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, London: Routledge, 1992, 6). A constructed performance in response to expectations within asymmetrical power relations can be understood as autoethnography, whereby “colonized subjects undertake to represent themselves in ways that engage with the colonizer’s own terms” (Pratt, 7; emphasis in original). Dabakis here uses “transculturation” to describe American women artists in a position of power over contemporary Romans in their cross-cultural appropriation. The term then is redefined to refer to those in a position of privilege and thus loses its fundamental political edge. For instance, Ream’s self-construction as an Italian peasant girl (fig. 90; 194) seems less a transcultural practice than one of posing as “the other.” “Transculturation” could have been more effectively employed to describe how these women artists shaped their public and artistic identities in a transnational space that limited mobility in the masculine art world.

Yet these questions and quibbles are more minor than the book’s many contributions to the field of gender studies, the study of nineteenth-century sculpture, the building of political discourse through artistic representation, and the construction of American culture through an international practice.

Emily C. Burns
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Auburn University