Sculptor. The most prominent of a sizable contingent of expatriate American women sculptors in mid-nineteenth-century Rome—Henry James famously dubbed them “the white, marmorean flock”—she was the first to arrive and remained there throughout her professional life. Her sculpture satisfied the prevailing taste for neoclassicism, but like many Victorian contemporaries she relished ornamental and narrative detail. Unlike most sculptors of her day, she undertook few portrait commissions, concentrating instead on imaginative subjects, often drawn from literature. Her boldness and eccentricity as a woman enhanced her fame as a sculptor. A tomboy in childhood, she dressed in men's clothing and lived independently. Yet, she charmed patrons and other visitors with her sociability, high spirits, and enthusiasm for her work. Besides other American women, such as Emma Stebbins and Vinnie Ream Hoxie, her friends included Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Wetmore Story, and other prominent artistic and literary figures in the city's fluid Anglo-American community. Born near Boston, in Watertown, Harriet Goodhue Hosmer decided to become a professional sculptor while studying for three years at a progressive girls' school in Lenox, Massachusetts. Returning home in 1849, she worked with Peter Stephenson (1823–61), an English-born neoclassicist active in Boston, before departing the following year for St. Louis. Because no Boston-area medical school would allow a woman to study anatomy, she enrolled instead at Missouri Medical College (now Washington University School of Medicine). After returning home, in 1852 she carved her first marble, a female bust depicting Hesper, the Evening Star (Watertown Public Library) before sailing later that year for Europe. In Rome she studied with the English neoclassicist John Gibson and soon began to produce the pieces that within a few years made her international reputation.
Hosmer accomplished most of her finest work between the mid-1850s and mid-1860s. The first work she created in Rome, a restrained but tender bust of Daphne (Metropolitan Museum, 1853), anticipates her numerous sculptures of literary or historical women. Embodying sensitivity to women's experience, these often stress such qualities as intellect, power, or resistance to authority. Among them, the vulnerable grace of mistreated Beatrice Cenci (Mercantile Library of St. Louis, 1856; modeled 1853–55) contrasts with the regal nobility of a colossal Zenobia in Chains (lost, 1858–59; reduced version, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, after 1859). Yet Hosmer's softly sensuous Sleeping Faun (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1865) stands as one of the mid-century's most affecting male nudes. Her several public monuments include the over-life-size senator Thomas Hart Benton (Lafayette Park, St. Louis, 1860–68), one of few works she realized in bronze. Hosmer also produced a number of playful fancies, which ranked as her most commercially successful creations. The most popular, the childlike 1856 Puck (Smithsonian American Art Museum), a subject from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, is known in more than thirty marble replicas. Hosmer outlived the vogue for neoclassical sculpture and devoted much of her later life to scientific study and tinkering with mechanical inventions. During these years, she frequently sojourned in England, where her many friendships elicited commissions for fountains, gates, and domestic decorations. She ceased making sculpture in the 1890s and returned permanently to Watertown in 1900.