HARRIET HOSMER (AMERICAN 1830-1908)
PUCK ON A TOADSTOOL, CIRCA 1856
white marble, signed 'HARRIET HOSMER FECIT ROMAE'; on a scagliola Sienna marble square plinth
79cm high; pedestal 93cm high
Estimate £ 10,000-15,000
Provenance: previously the property of the sculptor F. W. Sargant, who worked from his studio in Florenece, until 1944, and thence by family descent.
Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908) was arguably the leading female sculptor of the 19th century. Throughout her career she battled against the myth that sculpture was physically beyond women's capabilities.
Coming from a privileged background outside Boston, Massachussets, she studied anatomy with her physician father before moving to Rome aged nineteen to continue her training under the Welsh sculptor John Gibson. While in Rome she associated with a group of ex-pat artists and writers including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thackeray, George Eliot and George Sand. Hosmer's privilege enabled her to overcome female restrictions to a certain extent, her family was wealthy enough to support her through her studies and she attended respected schools making valuable connections that would lead to beneficial patrons. It was financial security that allowed her to choose her own subjects and ultimately her skill as a sculptor that won her recognition.
She became known for her untraditional depictions of female subjects and was considered at the time an "emancipated female" as she undertook everyday activities unaccompanied. Critics resorted to highlighting her unfeminine childhood in which she ran, swam and rowed to explain her "masculine" ambitions. Many of her works explored female figures in either captive or desperate situations at the hands of men. Often choosing classical tales, she would depict moments of despair, such as her Medusa (1854) at the moment she loses her beauty to become a monster, or her Oenone (1855) as she is left by her husband Paris. The most famous sculpture in this vein is her masterpiece, Zenobia. Queen Zenobia ruled Palmrya until it was sacked by the Roman Emperor Aurelian and she was taken prisoner. Hosmer studied various literary and historical works for her portrayal, all written by men, describing Zenobia as defeated and weighed down with jewels and unable to walk. Hosmer's Zenobia refuses to conform to this historical account, she stands defiant as a prisoner with less jewellery and the only chains on her wrists being manacles. The figure is stoic, head held high, carrying her restraints and exuding authority in a situation to be overcome
rather than defeated by.
The fine figure of Puck on a Toadstool demonstrates Hosmer's talent for capturing the spirit of her subject. Literary themes were very popular in the 19th century and Hosmer chose the
mischievous fairy from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Executed at a time when her finances were running low, the figure was immediately successful, being purchased by the Prince of Wales and the Crown Princess of Germany who, upon seeing the work, remarked, "Oh, Miss Hosmer, you have such talent for toes!" The commercial success of Puck on a Toadstool enabled the sculptor freedom to explore other subjects. "I have another order for Puck; he has already brought me his weight in silver." Harriet Hosmer, in Cornelia Crow Carr, ed., Harriet Hosmer: Letters and Memories, 1913.
In 1858, two years after creating Puck, Hosmer created a companion piece to the work, this time borrowing from folklore with her treatment of Will-o-the-Wisp which didn't achieve the same level of popularity as Puck on a Toadstool.
Sold for £31,250 (buyer's premium included)