Partner Lizzie Hadwen
Via Margutta, 53A, Rome, Italy
Protestant Cemetery of Merano Merano, Provincia di Bolzano, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
Margaret F. Foley (1827 – December 7, 1877) was an American sculptor who worked in a Neoclassical style. In addition to sculpture, she is known for cameo, medallion portraits, and direct carving. She was a close friends of Harriet Hosmer, Mrs Jameson, Mr and Mrs S.C. Hall, William Wetmore Story, and William and Mary Howitt.
The community of talented women in Rome included artists whose lives and works have become well known in art-historical circles: Harriet Hosmer, Edmonia Lewis, Anne Whitney, and Vinnie Ream; and those whose reputations have remained (until now) buried in the historical record: Emma Stebbins, Margaret Foley, Sarah Fisher Ames, and Louisa Lander. In 1903, Henry James immortalized this community of American women sculptors in Rome by characterizing them as “that strange sisterhood of American lady sculptors who at one time settled upon the seven hills [of Rome] in a white marmorean flock.” Hosmer, Lander, Stebbins, and Foley, under the mentorship of the thespian Charlotte Cushman, formed a close-knit and supportive community (though not without personal and professional jealousies) that the author Nathaniel Hawthorne rendered with some sympathy in his romantic account of American artists in Rome, The Marble Faun (1860).
In Rome Charlotte Cushman and Harriet Hosmer frequented a group of artists including Anne Whitney, Emma Stebbins, Edmonia Lewis, Louisa Lander, Margaret Foley, Florence Freeman, Sara Jane Clarke, Kate Field, and Vinnie Ream. Nathaniel Hawthorne was clearly describing these in his novel ''The Marble Faun'', and Henry James called them a "sisterhood of American ‘lady sculptors'."
Margaret Foley was born in Canada, but while she was quite young the family moved to northern Vermont. Foley was a self-taught sculptor prodigy from rural Vermont. She began whittling and carving in the rural city of Vergennes, Vermont, where she grew up. The daughter of a farmhand, Foley worked as a maid in order to afford her schooling. At the age of fourteen, Foley traveled to Lowell, Massachusetts to work in the spinning room of the Merrimack Corporation as a mill girl. While working at the mill, Foley began a career as a professional cameo carver in both shell and lava. During this time she contributed poetry to a magazine issued by female workers in the mills, The New England Offering, which she signed as M.F.F. She studied and later taught drawing and painting at Ednah Dow Littlehale Cheney's School of Design for Women, which opened in 1850 to provide occupational training for single women in the domestic arts. Cameo carving, like miniature painting, was considered a suitable career for women artists due to its decorative nature and association with sentimentality. At one time Foley was preceptress of Westport Academy. While there she boarded in Lowell, MA, and on Saturday afternoons she taught classes in drawing and painting, and among her pupils was Lucy Larcom. While at Westport Academy she modelled a bust of Dr. Gilman Kimball, a distinguished surgeon of Lowell.
Foley continued to support herself as a cameo artist throughout her career as a sculptor, and she often received accolades for her cameos when they were exhibited. She met Lorenza Haynes in Lowell, Massachusetts, and for nearly thirty years, till Foley's death, they remained friends. From Lowell she went to Boston, where she opened a studio. While in Boston, she suffered great privations, and earned but a scanty support in carving portraits and ideal heads in cameo; she did a bust, cabinet size, of Theodore Parker and a cameo of the Unitarian minister, John Pierpont. In 1860, she exhibited cameos at the Boston Athenaeum. In 1859 and 1860, she contributed articles to The Crayon, a highly respected art journal. By 1861, encouraged by Boston friends, she took her carefully gathered $400 in savings and headed to Italy.
Before leaving Massachusetts for Rome in 1860 Margaret Foley was close to Anne Whitney and her friends, particularly the painter Ellen Robbins, and while abroad Whitney often sent her family news of the success Foley had carving bas relief portraits and ideal busts for travelers.
After seven years in Boston, with the assistance of a Vermont politician who recognized her talent, she emigrated to Rome to study and grow her career as a sculptor. She traveled with Charlotte Cushman and Emma Stebbins, both of whom were central figures in an expatriate community of American women sculptors and intellectuals that also included Harriet Hosmer, Anne Whitney, Edmonia Lewis, Louisa Lander, Vinnie Ream, and others. At first, Foley's financial situation in Rome was difficult, but she soon found employment creating medallion portraits for prominent sitters and writing about art for the Boston Evening Transcript and the Crayon. When she first arrived in Rome, she shared a studio with Emma Stebbins, but after receiving some instruction from John Gibson, she opened a studio of her own on via Due Macelli. By 1872, Margaret Foley owned her own home and had, addition, two studios in Rome, one for sculpting, the other for exhibition.
As an artist from a working-class background without reliable support from wealthy patrons, Foley chose most of her subjects based on the demands of the art market. These included relief medallions, fancy pieces, and cameos, all of which appealed to American and British tourists visiting her studio as part of the Grand Tour. Like many of the other American women sculptors working in Rome, Foley carved her own marbles to keep costs down and to ensure complete artistic control of the end result. Within this circle, only Harriet Hosmer was successful enough to require the employment of studio assistants.
After studying with John Gibson, Foley opened her own studio on via Due Macelli. There is little doubt that the art market drove her aesthetic choices. For the most part, she produced relief medallions and fancy pieces, while continuing to work as a cameo carver.
In Rome, Foley began to sculpt large marble medallion portraits, as well as portrait busts in the round, such as the 1877 bust of the Transcendentalist minister Theodore Parker. One of her most well-known medallions, created in 1866, depicted Pascuccia, a model from Naples renowned for her beauty. With a Christian cross at her neck and Semitic features, Pascuccia embodied the polyglot world of nineteenth-century Rome, and Foley sold at least four versions of the sculpture. She also made a portrait of Swedish soprano Jenny Lind. Foley also sculpted biblical and historical subjects such as Jeremiah and Cleopatra, both of which were exhibited at the main Memorial Hall of the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Foley also exhibited a large fountain at the Exposition's Horticultural Hall, consisting of three children supporting a marble basin adorned with acanthus leaves (now in the Fairmount Park Horticultural Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). Over the course of her career, she gained many commissions and praise for her "crisply delineated, noble style".
Foley's reputation was sufficiently established by the time of her return visit to Boston in 1865 that a number of prominent men, such as the abolitionist senator Charles Sumner (1866) and the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, sat for her. Poets Julia Ward Howe and William Cullen Bryant (1867) and philanthropist Henry Farnam (1868) also count among her many distinguished subjects.
In 1866 the Englishman Henry Wreford, a freelance correspondent in Italy, described the female artists in Rome collectively 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 civilization of man.” Some of Wreford’s twelve stars, incidentally all American sculptors, are still recognizable names even today: Margaret Foley, Florence Freeman, Harriet Hosmer, Edmonia Lewis, and Emma Stebbins. Less known now are the American painter sisters Mary Elizabeth Williams and Abigail Osgood Williams, the Italian sculptor Horatia Augusta Latilla Freeman and her relative, the painter Adah Caroline Latilla, Irish painter and sculptor Jane Morgan, and English sculptor Isabel Cholmelay (her studio was at Palazzetto Sciarra). It is not entirely clear which of these women produced art of “greater magnitude” in Wreford’s mind; his discussion is rather general overall. Indeed, in his article and in others of the period, even the better-known women tend to earn more comments about their personalities, appearances, or behaviors than about their art.
Henry T. Tuckerman, an American writer who lived in Italy, included a brief section on American female sculptors in Rome in his Book of the Artists (1867). In less than five pages, in a volume of more than 600 pages total, he discussed several members of Henry Wreford’s constellation, including Margaret Foley, Florence Freeman, Harriet Hosmer, Edmonia Lewis, and Emma Stebbins. He briefly mentioned Sarah Fisher Clampitt Ames, Louisa Lander, Vinnie Ream, and Anne Whitney, though by that date Lander and Ames had returned to the United States and Ream had not yet arrived in Rome. Tuckerman’s description was hardly complementary; he noted that public appreciation of their art seemed to derive from “national deference to and sympathy with the sex” and from a lack of understanding about art in general. Yet even his dismissive analysis shows awareness of and interest in these women and their activities.
In 1869, she opened a studio on via Margutta, in the Palazzo Patrizi. “The walls of Miss Foley’s room are well lined with medallion portraits, in which she has been so successful, and which have gained for her so wide a reputation.” By 1872, she owned her own house in Rome and managed two studios—one for work and one for exhibition purposes. Known for her sympathy, tenderness, and warmheartedness by those who visited her studio or house, she showered her “deepest affections on her little domestic circle,” which included her companion, the English artist Elizabeth "Lizzie" Hadwen, with whom she shared her home, the reformer Mary Howitt, and other English friends with whom she “lived in the most intimate relationship.” Among all the women artists in Rome, Foley may have been the most successful in creating a safe haven of same-sex domesticity.
Beginning in the 1870s, Foley's health began to fail as she suffered from a debilitating neurological illness that prevented her from carving her own marbles directly. In 1877, she traveled with her British author friends, the Howitts, to Tyrol. She died of a stroke in Meran, Austria, on December 7, 1877, and was the only American woman sculptor to die at such a young age while residing in Europe. She is buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Merano. Margaret Howitt (1839–1930), William and Mary Howitt's youngest child, eulogized Foley in the pages of The Art Journal in 1878.
My published books:
BACK TO HOME PAGE