Purchased through a gift from Jane and W. David Dance, Class of 1940; S.996.24
Originally from Watertown, Massachusetts, Harriet Hosmer was the most accomplished and successful of several expatriate women sculptors working in the neoclassical style in Rome during the midnineteenth century. As seen in this bust of Medusa, Hosmer’s work exemplifies an important stylistic shift in the medium. Although the bust’s generalized features and overall simplicity of form are characteristic of the restrained neoclassical style, the parted lips and arched neck add a plaintive, expressive quality that can be seen as looking both back to Hellenistic and late Renaissance sculpture and forward to a more Victorian taste for emotional content. Medusa is one of Hosmer’s several sculptures that depict ill-fated heroines drawn from mythology and romantic literature. It captures the mythological Medusa at the moment of her transformation (by a jealous Athena) from a lovely mortal into a gorgon—a snake-haired monster whose look turned men to stone. Some accounts describe the gorgons as having wings, which here frame Medusa’s head, giving her a majestic aura while emphasizing her otherworldliness. By portraying the transformed Medusa as still beautiful rather than hideous (a model drawn from Hellenistic art), Hosmer emphasizes the complex dual nature of this legendary figure. Seen as both victim and agent, she is beautiful yet repellent, life-giving yet lethal—a reflection, perhaps, of the conflicting cultural attitudes toward womanhood often evidenced in nineteenth-century art and literature. Having faced derision from her male counterparts and from those who disapproved of her masculine dress and deportment, Hosmer may have felt a personal identification with Medusa’s victimization. On the other hand, Hosmer’s work as a figurative sculptor in marble invoked the gorgon’s powers as well, as both women can be said to have transformed people into stone.
Last Updated: 4/29/09