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American women sculptors in Rome in the mid-nineteenth century: feminist and psychoanalytic readings of a displaced canon

By Nancy.E. Proctor


Henry James's phrase, `white, marmorean flock', has become the defining image for the American women sculptors who worked in Rome in the midnineteenth century at the height of neoclassicism, subsuming their works and histories under the connotations of its words. Instead of simply permitting us to name these sculptors, `white, marmorean flock' raises both a problem of historiography, as a study of the exclusion of the women sculptors from questionable canons, and, more importantly, a problematic of the feminine\ud and subjectivity in the context of artistic Symbolic activity.\ud \ud Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1860 novel about expatriate artists in Rome, The Marble Faun, is a primary site for the excavation of the foundations of our contemporary understanding of the American women sculptors in Rome in\ud the mid-nineteenth century. Conflated with the objects of her creative production in a `Pygmalion effect', the woman sculptor is figured in Hawthorne's novel as a limit, embodying an impossible (for phallic cultural discourses) coincidence of femininity and creativity. Read through a matrixial lens, sculptures by Edmonia Lewis intrude uncannily in these canonical narratives of the nineteenth century, as the woman sculptor of colour in the studio destabilises and unfixes gender, race, and class identities. Here too the Sadean `nothingness' of the neoclassical sculpture emerges as a limit in\ud our understanding of nineteenth century modes of seeing -a limit which is perhaps best approached `through the defiles of the signifier', photography. For although the flat, white, ideologically-laden surfaces of American history\ud sculpture are now articulated by the spaces of the modernist white cube gallery, the woman sculptor remains a `strange and estranged' stain on the screen of American art, `rather out of place in the picture'. By focussing on the margins of American art history, this study deploys the anamorphic effect in an attempt to `hallow the hollow and to hollow the hallow': to move towards reading the works and histories of the American women sculptors who worked in Rome in the mid-nineteenth century in a symbolic register in which white is also black, and sculptors are also women

Publisher: Fine Art, History of Art & Cultural Studies (Leeds)
Year: 1998
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