Rome and Queer History: The 1850’s Lesbian Art Commune on the Hills

Eterna Alternatività: Rome and Queer History: The 1850's Lesbian Art Commune on the Hills

I have been wanting to write this post for weeks now. But, in classic Ciara fashion, the more I want to write about it, the harder it becomes to write about it. The more I indulge in the research, the less sure I am that I have all the information that I want to put into this post. However, with Covid-19 knocking me out this week, I’ve decided to sit down and just do it.

When I first moved to Rome, I quickly set about looking for alternative spaces in which to find my people. Queer spaces, Art spaces, Women-led spaces, Queer women leading art spaces… You get where I’m going… And then, I discovered this delightful period of Roman history.

Charlotte Cushman: America’s First Star

Charlotte Cushman was born in Boston in 1816. She was encouraged to train as an opera singer and followed this career path in order to support her family after the death of her father. However, her voice failed her and she pivoted to become an actress. Taking to the stage, Cushman performed as Lady Macbeth in 1836 and from there, her star rose.

Charlotte Cushman and Rome
Charlotte Cushman. ca. 1855. Courtesy of The Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-13410

Cushman is often considered the “first native-born star on the American stage”, having become internationally successful for her theatrical performances in both male and female roles. In 1845, she played Romeo opposite her sister, Susan, playing Juliet. This performance was well-received, with the sisters playing romantic roles considered to be chaste and maidenly. This was a clever PR move for Cushman. Ever aware of the importance of the public’s approval for her success, Cushman published many “ladylike pieces” for Godey’s Lady Book and Ladies Companion, in order to present herself to her audience as chaste and wholesome, but also, to push herself forward as a household name.

But being a Shakespearean star in America was nothing unless she could make a name for herself in England. Cushman sailed for England in 1844. In London, she was incredibly successful and well-received, creating a wave in London and later, in Dublin (My hometown!). While in London, she became acquainted with many women artists. It was here where she met Matilda Hays.

Matilda Hays & Charlotte Cushman

Matilda Hays was born in 1820. They were an English writer, journalist but also an actor. They were an avid supporter and advocator for women’s rights and also co-founded the English Woman’s Journal, in order to promote women’s writing and discuss better opportunities.

Matilda Hays and Charlotte Cushman. Open Access

Hays met Cushman in the years between 1846-1848, when Susan left the stage for marriage and Hays stepped in to take her place. Soon after, they began a lesbian relationship that would last for 10 years. They were recognised within Europe as a couple and would dress in similar clothes to each other, wearing tailored shirts and jackets. One source I found mentions that Hays was often referred to by their closest friends as Max or Matthew, and in many diary entries and letters, Hosmer and co. refer often to Hays as Max. In 1852, Cushman retired from acting and joined Hays in Rome, where they lived together openly in a community of expatriate lesbian artists and sculptors…

A House of ‘Jolly Bachelor Women‘: Cushman, Hays, Hosmer & Stebbins and the ‘White, Marmorean Flock

Across sources, there have been many named possibilities for where this community of women artists lived. However, it is mostly agreed that they lived at Via del Corso, 28, with Stebbins and Cushman later moving to Via Gregoriana, 38, in their later time in Rome.

Their community of creatives was established to promote and support the work of female artists. They were well situated for access to skilled artists to learn from, examples of well rendered art, as well as access to inexpensive marble. Living as part of this ‘white, marmorean flock,’ as dubbed by Henry James, was Charlotte Cushman, Matilda Hays, Harriet Hosmer, and journalist Grace Greenwood. However, many others were associated with this community built up around their Via del Corso residence, including Margaret Foley, Edmonia Lewis, a favourite artist of Cushman’s, and Florence Freeman. William Wetmore Story named this group a “harem (scarem) of emancipated females,” while Henry Wreford described them as “a fair constellation of twelve stars of greater or lesser magnitude, who shed their soft and humanising influence on a profession which has done so much for the refinement and civilisation of man.”

These artists were incredibly successful in their respective fields in a time where it was not commonplace for women to practice, let alone succeed.

Cushman’s successes have been somewhat discussed above, but it is worth mentioning that the legacy she left on the theatrical world rendered acting to be less of a demeaning profession for women.

Charlotte Cushman, J. Paul Getty Museum, Open Access

Hosmer, like Stebbins, was a talented sculptor, who defied the norms of her time to become an acclaimed artist. Despite anatomy being a subject reserved for men and one that is necessary for a sculptor to succeed, Hosmer received private tuition in order to fulfil her dreams. She moved to Rome in order to pursue her career, however, her father was unable to support her. This did not deter Hosmer, who tenaciously worked to ensure she gained patronage of wealthy tourists to Rome. She was a student under the English sculptor, John Gibson. Her most acclaimed work is Puck.

Stebbins was a driven and talented sculptor, enjoying early career success with her work exhibited at the National Academy of Design and being nominated to be an associate member of the group. Her most renowned work is the Angel of the Waters, also known as the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park.

Stibben’s “Angel of the Waters” (1873)… Image by John Wisniewski

Hays was a successful writer and champion of women’s rights, who co-founded the English Woman’s Journal as discussed above, but also, on their return to England, became heavily involved in the founding of The Society for Promoting the Employment of Women, as well as The Victoria Press.

Love, Loss and Lesbianism in the Eternal City

When Cushman joined Hays in Rome in 1852, she was accompanied by Harriet Hosmer, an acclaimed sculptor, and Cushman’s life-long friend and maid, Sallie Mercer. Hosmer had met Cushman a few years before and had become enthralled with this independent, strong-willed woman. However, when she arrived in Rome, Hosmer quickly began an affair with Hays, who left Cushman for Hosmer, but eventually returned to Cushman. This left lasting damage on their friendship, and though they remained friends, Cushman and Hosmer were never as close as before. In the final years of Cushman’s life, Hosmer and Cushman fell out entirely. Unsurprising, really, for such a tumultuous relationship but sad nonetheless…

And the drama doesn’t stop. By 1857, Cushman had fallen desperately in love with another young and talented sculptor, named Emma Stebbins. Stebbins was born in 1815 and her talent was encouraged from a young age. She studied with the portraitist Henry Inman and also with the sculptor Edward Brackett. After gaining a reputation as a skilled artist, Stebbens travelled to Rome with her mother and sister and fell in love with the city. In 1857, she moved in with Harriet Hosmer and studied under John Gibson. Hosmer introduced Stebbins to the bohemian, feminist lifestyle she was living and to the many female artists in her social circle. This is, assumably, how she met Cushman and fell in love.

From here, Stebbins and Cushman began an intimate, secret relationship. However, Hays figured it out and accused Cushman of the truth, chasing her around their home and beating her. There is a delightfully scandalous source of Anne Brewster’s diary entry about the tumultuous night that you can read here. This was the end of their 10 year relationship, with Hays moving out of their community home. According to the diary entry, Harriet Hosmer was witness to Hay’s violent outburst against Cushman and from that day banished Hays from her company. Hays attempted to sue Cushman, stating that they had sacrificed their career to support Cushman and that they were entitled to compensation. Cushman settled and the two parted ways, with Stebbins moving into the house soon after. Hays moved back to London and met Theodosia Dowager Lady Monson, a women’s rights activist. The two became an item, with Lady Monson becoming Hays’ final life partner.

Stebbins and Cushman were together until the end of Cushman’s life in 1876. Despite Cushman’s discrepancies with another woman, Emma Crow, Stebbins put aside her sculpting career to care for Cushman when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1869. They travelled together to try and receive appropriate treatment, however, to no avail. Cushman died of pneumonia in Boston, at age 59.


So, how was it that in the 1800’s, lesbianism was a socially acceptable practice? How is it possible that the first American theatre star could go unheard of by the majority? At the time, the idea of women having sexually desirous relationships was unfathomable to the general public. Sexual desire was considered an entirely masculine trait. So, close relationships between women, even romantic ones, were considered to be incredibly chaste. However, after Cushman’s death, these ideas of romantic and sexual love between women changed and her identity and success was trivialised and obscured.

One thing is for sure. This ‘harem of emancipated women’ is absolutely fascinating and involved some of the most interesting and talented artists of their time. It truly breaks my heart that I have not stumbled across a modern day equivalent here in the streets of Rome… Yet…

Alla prossima,

Ciara O’Síoráin (che desidera diventare una bella donna figa come gli italiani)



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