Overlooked No More: Hettie Anderson, Sculptors’ Model Who Evaded Fame

Overlooked No More: Hettie Anderson, Sculptors’ Model Who Evaded Fame
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Overlooked No More: Hettie Anderson, Sculptors’ Model Who Evaded Fame

Overlooked No More: Hettie Anderson, Sculptors’ Model Who Evaded Fame

This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries of notable people whose deaths, from 1851, were not reported in The Times.

Its likeness has been rendered on top of monuments and on gold coins. In Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ imposing gilded equestrian sculpture honoring Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman at the Grand Army Plaza in Manhattan, she depicts the winged Greek goddess Victory walking in sandals in front of her horse, one arm outstretched. But while her image can be found in multiple locations across the United States, little is known about model Hettie Anderson.

What is known is that she surfaced in Manhattan in the 1890s, a fair-skinned African American who joined her cultural scene after escaping the bitter stigma of the South. Sculptors and painters sought to portray what one newspaper article described as her “creamy skin, curly hair and warm brown eyes.”

But Anderson has received less media attention than some of her contemporaries, such as models Evelyn Nesbit and Audrey Munson, who have found themselves embroiled in murder and sexual assault scandals. And over time, Anderson’s name fell apart from the famous artists who hired her.

By the time of her death on January 10, 1938, at the age of 64, she was almost forgotten by the world at large.

Her story remained in the dark until the 1990s, when researcher Willow Hagans, who is also Anderson’s cousin, began publishing scholarly articles about her which Ms Hagans wrote with her husband, William E. Hagans.

The couple first heard about Anderson around 1980 from William Hagans’ grandmother, Jeanne Wallace McCampbell Lee. They learned that although Anderson is African American, her fair skin had led enumerators to classify her as white. (It is unclear what she told people about her race.)

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There is no evidence that Anderson marketed himself, despite his high-profile commissions.

“He was a calm and determined person, very professional and respected as a powerful entity, which resulted in some beautiful works of art,” Willow Hagans said over the phone.

Anderson was born Harriette Eugenia Dickerson in 1873 in Columbia, SC. Her mother, Caroline Scott, was a seamstress. His father is listed in the documents as Benjamin Dickerson.

Research, including the findings of his cousin Amir Bey, shows that prior to the Civil War, the government designated Anderson’s family as “free people of color”; they owned land and earned wages.

But the brutal application of Jim Crow laws in the South and financial difficulties eventually pushed Anderson and many of his relatives north. She and her mother rented an apartment in Manhattan on Amsterdam Avenue at 94th Street.

Anderson – it’s unclear why she used the name – sometimes worked as a clerk and dressmaker while taking classes at the Art Students League, Manhattan’s famous non-profit school. She also spent weeks in the studios of country sculptors, including Chesterwood, on Daniel Chester French’s estate in Stockbridge, Mass.

Soon artists approached her to pose for them and the newspapers praised her “heroic” appearance.

“There is nothing in Greek sculpture more beautiful than her figure,” the New York Journal and Advertiser wrote in 1899, adding: “Her figure is imposing, her carriage royal and she is famous for her perfect foot.”

“Because she was in so much demand,” Hagans said, “she could choose the artists she wanted to pose for.”

Anderson’s likeness can be seen in French sculptures at Congress Park in Saratoga Springs, NY; in the cemeteries of northern New Jersey and Concord, Mass .; and in the entrances to the St. Louis Museum of Art and the Boston Public Library.

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Sculptor Adolph Alexander Weinman rendered her as a goddess in a toga for Civic Fame, which crowns the New York government skyscraper now called the David N. Dinkins Manhattan Municipal Building.

Artist John La Farge rendered her as a slender Athenian deity for a mural at Bowdoin College in Maine. In an engraved portrait of Swedish painter Anders Zorn, she appears huddled behind a haggard Saint-Gaudens during a modeling session.

She was a favorite of Saint-Gaudens, who called her “the most beautiful model I have ever seen”.

“I really need her,” he once wrote to a friend. In a draft of his memoir, he wrote that he depended on his endurance to “pose patiently, steadily, and completely in the desired spirit” – in his case, swirling togas atop monuments and on coins. gold.

In 1908, shortly after Saint-Gaudens’ death, Anderson protected his bronze bust from her. Her family wanted to make replicas for sale, but refused, insisting that it would remain the most valuable as “the only one that exists,” and loaned it to museums.

In 1910, at the close of a Saint-Gaudens retrospective in Indianapolis, workers accidentally sent the bust to the sculptor’s family. Anderson wrote a scathing letter to the museum director. “You made a big mistake in letting this bust that is in your care go through,” she wrote, and sending it “just where I didn’t want it to go”.

In 1990, the Hagans bought the bust of Saint-Gaudens from the Christie’s auction house in New York.

Saint-Gaudens’ son Homer, who handled his father’s artwork after the sculptor’s death, was furious at Anderson’s challenge and tried to hide his association with his father.

In the late 1910s, as modeling opportunities waned, Anderson worked as a class attendant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At that time, the museum had a cast of Victory as well as “Mourning of Victory”, the marble likeness of French.

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In the 1920s, Anderson retired in poor health.

Her death certificate mentioned her profession as a “model”. She and her mother are buried in unmarked graves in a predominantly white cemetery in Columbia, near the remains of President Woodrow Wilson’s family members and Confederate memorials.

Last year, a label describing the casting of Victory on the Met’s 150th anniversary show called Anderson “a black woman who has posed for many artists in New York.” Victory casts can also be found at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, and Arlington National Cemetery. In 2017, another Victory sold for over $ 2 million at Christie’s.

Chesterwood has plaster casts of his right foot and right hand. Images of Anderson also circulated in the market in the form of Zorn etchings and Saint-Gaudens coins; in June, a 1933 version of his $ 20 gold coin sold for almost $ 19 million at Sotheby’s in New York.

This fall, at the Bowdoin Museum, the Athenian incarnation of Anderson will rise above an exhibition titled “There is a Woman of All Colors: Black Women in Art.” In 2023, works of art inspired by Anderson will be featured in the American Federation of the Arts’ traveling exhibition, “Monuments and Myths: America by Sculptors Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Daniel Chester French”.

Late afternoon a few months ago, Thayer Tolles, the curator of American paintings and sculptures at the Met, gazed at the Sherman monument in Grand Army Plaza. “The attention to detail – it’s just thrilling,” she said.

The light of the setting sun shone on the golden fingertips of the statue and the feathers of the wings of a model in the prime of life.

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