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The Jolly Bachelors of Rome

Jun 27, 2024

Two weeks ago, we followed Edmonia Lewis from Ontario to Boston to Rome, where she sought refuge from the racism she experienced in the United States and blossomed as a sculptor. This week, learn more about the community of expat women, artists originally from New England, who welcomed Lewis and supported her talents in Italy.

When Edmonia Lewis left Boston in 1866, she had good reasons. As a Black and Indigenous woman, her life in America had been circumscribed by racism that included not only the rejection of her art, but personal attacks that threatened her reputation and her freedom. Arriving in Rome, she joined a close circle of women artists who had left New England after finding it similarly inhospitable and had established an expatriate community in which they could live and create freely.

The “Jolly Bachelors,” as they called themselves, were a group of women largely connected through American actress Charlotte Cushman. In the 1840s, Cushman had an impressive stage career in the United States, where she was known for her ability to inhabit both male and female roles with equal dramatic force. Audiences adored Cushman onstage but stopped short of accepting her private life and her romantic relationships with women. Although her celebrity grew steadily, in 1852 Cushman and her partner, the writer Matilda “Max” Hays, decided to move from Boston to Rome where noteworthy bohemian artists, writers, and thinkers were thriving in Europe’s more liberal climate. Their plan included two friends: Harriet Hosmer, who had come to study with sculptor John Gibson, and Grace Greenwood, a journalist and the first female reporter for The New York Times. Harriet’s work was slowly gaining traction in the art world but the more visible she became, the more she was publicly scrutinized. A November 1852 column in The New England Farmer remarked, “Miss Harriet Hosmer (you will not, surely, have forgotten the stories concerning her numberless eccentricities,) has just completed a marble bust of Hesper, the Evening Star, which is of wondrous beauty.”

In Rome, Cushman’s salon expanded to include women with varied and dynamic personal, artistic, and financial relationships. Neoclassical sculptors Florence Freeman, Anne Whitney, Harriet Hosmer, Emma Stebbins, Lavinia “Vinnie” Ream, and Margaret Foley all crossed paths in Rome, where Cushman’s home became a social hub for expat artists and traveling friends. Like Edmonia Lewis, these women had experienced varying degrees of success but also suppression and harassment as they struggled to establish careers in the United States. Ream, for instance, fled the US after receiving a Congressional commission to create a marble bust of Abraham Lincoln, which drew the ire of male artists and politicians who feared would damage the piece as she worked on it in the Capitol Building. She left Washington D.C. and finished the bust in Rome. Florence Freeman, a talented artist from Beacon Hill, joined the group in the early 1860s. One of New England’s most powerful female philanthropists, Mary Tileston Hemenway, supported Freeman’s work. Beyond patronage and commissions, the women supported themselves by creating small relief sculptures, cameos, and other Grand Tour souvenirs for American and British travelers.

Cushman did not limit her associations to women; the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne was her good friend. Hawthorne and his wife Sophia visited Rome in 1858, renting a nearby house for several months and socializing with the group. His time with them inspired one of his most famous novels, The Marble Faun, in which he wrote about a group of female American artists living and working in Rome. Hawthorne had a deep regard for Cushman and the unique life she had built. Unlike many Americans, he did not share the view that women’s art was naturally inferior. Others, however, found the idea of women living with purpose and (happily) without men to be distasteful, even scandalous. Expat male artists who considered Rome their domain mocked the talents and minimized the successes of Cushman and her companions. The novelist Henry James called them “a strange sisterhood of American lady sculptors” and satirized them in his writing. Unfazed, the women continued to socialize, create, earn incomes, and build professional reputations in Rome.

In 1857, Charlotte and Max Hays’ relationship ended. Charlotte soon formed a new romantic partnership with Boston-born sculptor Emma Stebbins, who had come to Rome to study and work. Stebbins shared a studio with Cushman’s former lover Hattie Hosmer on the Via del Corso and lived with Cushman in her home nearby; she would later share studio space with cameo artist Margaret Foley, whose work showed at the 1876 Philadelphia World Exposition. Stebbins herself continued to gain prominence and remains known for her sculpture titled “Angel of the Waters,” which was likely modeled after Charlotte Cushman and sits at the center of the Bethesda Fountain in New York’s Central Park. She and Cushman eventually considered themselves married and remained together until Cushman’s death in 1876.

Edmonia Lewis’s world must have expanded immeasurably when she discovered this rich collective of like-minded artists. The fact that many of them lived out their lives in Rome speaks to the powerful connections between these women who refused to be hemmed in by convention, and who created a new kind of community in which they could finally be their authentic selves.

Written by Eleanor Martinez-Proctor, Research Fellow at Historic New England’s Study Center