Saturday, 7 March 2015

Gothic Art in Spotlight: Will o' the Wisp by Harriet Hosmer

I have been in DC over a month now and I must say I simply love the Smithsonian museums! They are free, they have such a variety of different museums and they all are relatively close to each other. Of the museums in DC my favorite is probably the National Gallery of Art, even though they are currently renovating their East Building that has all the contemporary art. Lucky for me, their collection of European art from the 19th and 20th centuries is of great quality.

A tiny disclaimer before I proceed: I have not yet seen here any art that is "super goth", but I do not want to bury my art posts completely, so I am posting about art that has at least some intriguing nuances towards the aesthetics of goth subculture.


Even though I just praised the National Gallery of Art, the sculpture I am going to feature in this post is not from there. It can be seen in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The name of this marble statue is Will o' the Wisp and it was sculpted by Harriet Hosmer 1858. I had not encountered Hosmer's work before, or at least I do not remember if I have. I have this feeling that Europeans do not tend to see that much American art that is over 100 years old. Contemporary artists are much better known on the other side of Atlantic Ocean. I must add, that Hosmer was not solely based in the United States, she spend a considerable amount of time in Italy, learning sculpting and making her career, so I think I really should have known more about her and her work.

I am sad to say I do not know much about this statue. I searched information about it and apparently Harriet Hosmer made a series of whimsical sculptures and that series itself is called Will o' the Wisp. The statues present little creatures with notions to mythology.


I remember hearing a long time ago one definition of goth subculture and it was that "goth is longing for a time and place that never was nor has yet been." Not accurate, sure, but it does highlight the fact that goth aesthetics do not belong, that they differ from the mainstream. Mythological statues too are a bridge to time and place that never really was. It might be just my constrained point of view on goth people, but I have this feeling that most goths are interested of supernatural, fantasy and sci-fi and unexplained disturbing horror. The way I see it, imagination has an important role in this subculture.

The statue made by Hosmer is intriguing because the little humanoid character has wings like a bat. That is something rarely done. In paintings you see much more devilish characters lurking with bat-wings but they are seldom made out of marble. The sculpture is an unsettled merge of childhood's innocence and falling out of grace with those nasty wings. (I personally think bat-wings are adorable of coarse, but you know what I mean!)


The little bird on top of the head of this humanoid looks to me as if it is a little owl. Owls were associated with Athene (Pallas Athena), the goddess of knowledge and tactical war in Ancient Greece. Harriet Hosmer made many statues inspired of the Ancient mythology. Some of her most famous sculptures are of Medusa, but alas, I did not spot any statues of women with snake hair in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

It seems that on the head of the statue is some kind of helmet. You can hardly see the helmet from front, since the curly hair of this slightly demonic child hide it. Another symbolic object is the torch. It could symbol a great many things, it could be a homage to the Olympics, or to Prometheus who saved humans by stealing the secret of fire from the gods. Most likely it is pointing towards Athene too, since fire is also seen as a symbol of knowledge. I do not know what the bat-wings are referring to, so if any of you have an idea and can tell if they too have something to do with Athene, please let me know!


Hosmer was born 1830 and she died 1908. She was one of the best known women artists of her time. Her father was supportive and Hosmer was very athletic, had the chance to study sculpting and she even developed some new techniques for statue making, like how to convert ordinary limestone into marble.

I love making these extra inquiries after seeing some lovely artwork. I do hope you enjoyed my post too!

11 comments:

  1. Awesome O_O never heard of Hosmer either but that statue is beautiful and as you said the bat wings are unusual!

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    1. They are, and so well crafted too. :)

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    1. Yeah, something one would happily have at her back yard or in the lounge. :D

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  3. Well, I like Harriet because she had the good taste to put bat wings on her little statue instead of just regular old wings. :)

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    1. She did, and she also liked to sculpt little boys with horns too! :D

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  4. I like your reading of the piece.

    I went searching about bat wings in art and found this little nugget http://centralpt.com/upload/417/12061_BatsinArtLessons.pdf It's isn't related to the sculpture but is pretty fascinating in itself.

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    1. That publication seems intriguing, hanks for posting a link! I started to think now that the bat-wings might also refer to Athene in a more subtle way. She was after all also a goddess of moon. ^_^

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    1. And it seems to change depending where you look at it. From one angle it looks happy and playful, from the other somehow reserved. :)

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  6. The museums sound great! I love anything mythical!

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