Historical Society of Watertown Essay Contest

The Historical Society of Watertown has sponsored various essay contests dating back to 1928 to encourage students to learn and write about Watertown history.  Since 1999, the Historical Society Award has been given annually to the three high school students who submit the best essays based on a choice of four themes: an individual, ethnic group, landmark or historical event in Watertown and its significance to the town and region.  Information on contest winners dating back to 2005 is available.  Besides the award, the first place winner receives a $250 prize, while the second and third place winners receive $150 and $100 prizes, respectively.  The winning essays are chosen by a panel of Historical Society Council members and the awards are presented in June in the Watertown High School lecture hall.

The Historical Society appreciates the effort taken by Social Studies Coordinator Kraig Gustafson and the High School staff to encourage students to develop an interest in the history of their town.  The Historical Society Councilors look forward to reading the essays every year.

In 2023, first place was awarded to 10th grader Katherine Schick for their essay "Harriett Hosmer - Art Reaching Rome and Watertown," the text of which is included below.

Second place went to 9th grader Montserrat Llacuna for their essay titled "Maria White Lowell - The Ink of Equality."  Third place was awarded to 10th grader Mia Caterino for their essay "Samuel Gridley Howe, Director of Perkins."


First Place 2023

Harriett Hosmer - Art Reaching Rome and Watertown
by Katherine Schick (Grade 10)

Shortly before her death in 1908, Harriet Hosmer spoke at the opening of a new Watertown public school dedicated to her father and cousin.  Over a century later, though, it’s Harriet who has brought the most fame to the Hosmer name.  Harriet Hosmer was a pioneering neoclassical sculptor of the 19th century, a trailblazing female artist who challenged the notion that only white men could thrive in the art world, and while she has long been neglected for her achievements, Watertown took an overdue step in recognizing her last year by including her in the dedication of the new Hosmer Elementary School.

Harriet Hosmer was born on October 9, 1830, to Hiram Hosmer and Sarah Watson Hosmer (Grant).  Hosmer’s three siblings and mother died of tuberculosis when she was a child, so she grew up encouraged by her physician father to spend time outside and take part in physical activities to keep her body strong, even though girls of the era were expected to say at home and remain in the confines of the "cult of domesticity."  Hosmer attended the progressive Sedgewick School for Girls in Lenox, Massachusetts, nicknamed "The Hive" and "The Culture Factory" for its emphasis on the arts and humanities.  Although her father was keen on her pursuing a career in medicine, medical school was unavailable to women in Massachusetts at the time, so Hosmer instead decided to focus her academics on anatomy to help with modeling the human body in sculptures.  She took private lessons at the St. Louis University in Missouri and practiced drawing and sculpting at her in-home studio in Watertown under the training of Boston sculptor Peter Stephenson.

Because 19th century America had limited opportunities for female artists, Hosmer decided to move to the art hub of Rome in 1852 with her friend Charlotte Cushman, an actress.  Not only did Europe have more access to training from skilled instructors, but women were more equal to men in accessing this training and succeeding as artists.  Once there, she and a fellow Watertown artist, Anne Whitney, joined a group of female sculptors dubbed the "White Marmorean Flock" by esteemed author Henry James.  These women worked to broaden the scope of who could be an artist, and Hosmer became the first student to study under the noted British sculptor John Gibson.  Upon meeting Hosmer, Gibson told her, "I am glad that you feel impatient to start your statue; that impatience is the love, the love of the art.  The more you feel it, the more is the soul inflamed with ambition, the ambition of excellence."

Within three years of arriving in Rome, Hosmer was regularly receiving commissions for new works.  A copy of her sculpture Puck, inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, was purchased by the Prince of Wales in 1856.  She created Beatrice Cenci for the St. Louis Mercantile Library in 1857, Sleeping Faun (a copy of which was purchased for the city of Dublin) in 1865, and a statue of Senator Thomas Hart Benton for Lafayette Park in St. Louis in 1868.  In addition, she developed a process of turning limestone into marble.  Through these accomplishments, Hosmer solidified herself as one of Rome’s leading female artists of the day.

As a woman in a field dominated by men, Hosmer faced frequent criticism.  Some male sculptors accused Hosmer of having others do her work, but she persevered through these accusations.  The popularity of her and her work helped in the advancement of inclusivity among artists, making it more acceptable for people other than white men to pursue careers in art.  Her drive to defy the status quo that confined women to certain professions puts her in a group with others in history who broke barriers dividing people based on gender, religion, race, ethnicity, disabilities, and more.  Hosmer herself once said, "I honor every woman who has strength enough to step out of the beaten path when she feels that her walk lies in another."

Hosmer later moved to England, where she was romantically involved with the widowed Louisa, Lady Ashburton, for twenty-five years, establishing her as a vanguard in LGBT history in addition to women’s art and Watertown history.  She also spent time with her close friends in the art world, including fellow members of the "White Marmorean Flock," and successful writers Nathaniel Hawthorne, Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  She continued to work and made frequent trips to Rome during this time.  Her last major piece was a statue of Queen Isabella for the city of San Francisco in 1894, and she returned to Watertown permanently in 1900.  She died on February 21, 1908.

Hosmer’s triumphs as an influential artist have not gone unnoticed.  Her art has been exhibited at prestigious museums including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art Washington, among others.  She is part of The Dinner Party at the Brooklyn Museum: a table set for a banquet with around 1,000 names of historic women inscribed in the floor below (her name is near artist Georgia O’Keefe).  In 2006, a book titled Waking Stone: Inventions on the Life of Harriet Hosmer was written by Carole Simmons Oles.  There is a Mount Hosmer in Iowa (where Hosmer once won a footrace to the summit) and a World War II Liberty Ship "SS Harriet Hosmer."  And in 2022, her hometown honored her in the dedication of the Hosmer Elementary School, now named for Hiram, Alfred, and Harriet Hosmer.

Watertown’s pride in Harriet Hosmer is finally deepening as we take steps to honor a much-overlooked woman who prospered both as a sculptor and a feminist.  While she may not get colossal recognition, her impact on who can be an artist has opened doors for people in Watertown and far beyond to enjoy and pursue art.