Hosmer's 'Medusa' piece transcends traditional disciplines

by Kelly Sidley | 11/12/96 6:00am

Mythological legend recounts that Medusa's gaze turned her admirers into lifeless stone bodies. Harriet Hosmer's marble neoclassical bust of "Medusa" (1854), a recent acquisition for the Hood Museum of Art, captures in stone her perplexing demeanor before Medusa metamorphoses into a Gorgon.

Medusa is both a creator and destroyer, seductive and cruel in mythological history. The entrancing Medusa was seduced by the sea-god Poseidon and was beheaded by Perseus.

Two beings grew from the stump of her neck -- the winged horse Pegasus and the warrior Chrysaor.

The Medusa image is a paradox. After her decapitation, the blood from her left vein was poisonous and deadly, while the blood from her right vein was life-giving and beneficial. As such, she embodies female power, but also exists as a victim of male desire.

The "Medusa" adds a historically important work to the Hood's American collection. Barbara MacAdam, the Hood Museum's curator of American art, said "the Museum was lacking in American neoclassical sculpture and had been looking actively in this area last spring."

She added, "It was a wonderful opportunity not only to fill a stylistic gap in the collections, but to represent a major woman artist by one of her finest works."

Only three of five Medusa pieces by Hosmer are known to exist. Hosmer's "Medusa" fits into the emerging artistic identity that was created during the 19th century when the American art world still reflected strong European influences.

American artists were torn between two schools of thought. Their European ancestry provided one branch of instruction in which a well-defined artistic tradition already existed.

On the other hand, ever-expanding American culture did not fit into a specific European mode of life. American culture urged artists to define their own styles and subjects representative of the cultural amalgam, or "melting pot," of people pouring into the country.

Ambivalent attitudes of style and subject distinguish American art during the time that Hosmer was sculpting. This diversity of cultures and influences defined the American spirit of independence.

Born in Watertown, Mass., in 1830, Hosmer always embodied an adventurous spirit and artistic inclination. She lived nearly 50 years of her life in Rome, where she incorporated the classical influences and mythological subjects of Italy into her own work.

Hosmer is the most successful female American sculptor of her time. Working in a neoclassical style, she often chose female subjects from mythology and romantic literature that show a moment of metamorphosis -- both spiritual and physical.

The Hood's piece captures Medusa just before she metamorphoses into a Gorgon. Her expression is sad, elegiac, yet calm.

Her flawless, smooth skin and bust are idealized in a Classical manner. Her tendrils of hair just start to reveal the snakes that will crawl from her skull when the transformation is complete.

This depiction of Medusa in full physical splendor captures a distinctively Hellenistic viewpoint of the woman/gorgon, in contrast to the more common archaic Greek and Renaissance images that portray Medusa as a hideous, terrifying shrew.

MacAdam pointed out that "Hosmer's mythological 'Medusa' is ideally suited for exploration from a number of academic disciplines -- from art history and classics to literature and women's studies."

She added, "Its utility for teaching, combined with its remarkable beauty, make it ideally suited for an academic museum."

MacAdam will be giving a "Curator's Choice" slide lecture on the "Medusa" tomorrow in Loew Auditorium at 7:30 p.m.

The purchase of Hosmer's "Medusa," which is now on view in the Israel Sack Gallery in the Hood Museum, was made possible through a gift from Jane and David Dance '40.

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