I have blogged about Anne Whitney before, after being mesmerized by her bronze portrait of an elderly woman asleep, titled “Le Modele,” in the collection of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. This fascinating sculptor had a long career as an artist and seems to have been equally passionate about abolition, a dedication she shared with many other Bostonians of her generation. Today, her bronze monuments to Leif Erikson (pictured), Samuel Adams (Faneuil Hall) and Charles Sumner (Harvard Square) remain as lasting contributions to Boston’s urban landscape. I doubt many people who see the Erikson monument, for example, know that it was created by a woman artist. Ironically, even fewer may realize who the subject actually is, given the huge shifts our collective historical imagination has undergone since the Victorian era.
Whitney was born in Watertown, Massachusetts, just outside Boston proper, on 2 September, 1821. She was educated privately, and even as a child was interested in art and writing. Whitney could not attend college since women were not admitted to Yale or Harvard. In 1846 she opened a small school for girls in Salem, Massachusetts, and the poetry she wrote at that time was collected in a volume simply titled “Poems” (New York, 1859). After the Civil War she made several visits to Europe where she studied sculpture, and on her return in 1873 she established a studio in Boston.
A well-known supporter of both the abolitionist and womens’ suffrage movements, Whitney herself was to publicly feel the brunt of sexism. In 1875, she won a commission for a statue of Charles Sumner but the work was denied her when it was discovered that the winning model was created by a woman. Her work was produced anyway, now the seated Sumner which casts a thoughtful presence over Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Whitney’s choice of portrait subjects (John Keats, Samuel Adams, Toussaint l’Ouverture, William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Sumner, Frances Willard, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Samuel Sewall, Alice Freeman Palmer, Robert Gould Shaw, Eben Norton Horsford, Harriet Martineau, Jennie McGraw Fiske, Lucy Stone and others) reveals her political and cultural interests. Whitney’s aim seems to have been to create traditional bronze and marble memorials to radical subjects (like Toussaint l’Ouverture and Lucy Stone), the effect of which must have been quietly revolutionary in her own time. Whitney died in Boston in 1915.
For the sculpture’s location and an interactive map of public art in Boston: http://www.publicartboston.com/map/node
Source: Rubenstein, Charlotte Streifer, American Women Sculptors, G.K. Hall & Co., Boston, 1990.
Pictured: “Leif Erikson” (1886), unveiled in Boston, 29 October, 1887. The statue (formerly above a fountain) represents the Norse-Icelandic discoverer of America as a man of physical beauty and vigor, in the costume of an ancient Scandinavian warrior.