Sculptor Paying Tribute to Charles Sumner Faced Sexism

Venerable sculptor and Massachusetts native Anne Whitney felt the sting of sexism firsthand when her favored design for a statue to commemorate Charles Sumner in the recently constructed Public Garden was passed over due to her gender.

Upon Sumner’s death at age 63 on March 11, 1874, the entire City of Boston entered a state of mourning over the loss of one of its favorite sons, and soon afterwards, the Boston Arts Committee began soliciting designs for a statue to honor the U.S. senator from Massachusetts who was an outspoken abolitionist.

Whitney submitted her design anonymously, which depicted a seated Sumner holding an open book in one hand while staring into the distance. While Liz Vizza, executive director of the Friends of the Public Garden, said Whitney’s design was believed to accurately capture Sumner’s “spirit,” and it went on to beat out numerous other designs, including some by the most prominent architects of the day, the honor was soon revoked when someone tipped off committee members that the top design was in fact the work of a woman. “It was considered obscene at the time for a female artist to model a man’s legs,” Vizza said.

Instead, the committee opted to erect the runner-up design in the Public Garden, which was the work of American sculptor Thomas Ball. Vizza said the snub was “particularly ironic” since Sumner was so committed to equality that Rep. Preston Brooks, a pro-slavery advocate, attacked him with a walking stick on the Senate floor in retaliation for a scathing speech he made two days earlier, lambasting slaveholders, including one of Brooks’ relatives.

Shortly after learning of the committee’s decision, Whitney wrote to her brother and sister from Rome in 1875, “Bury your grievance, my dear Sarah and Edward. It will take more than a Boston Committee to quench me.”

Whitney subsequently reclaimed the original version of her Sumner statue, hoping to find a permanent home for it. The piece became part of a temporary exhibit at the 1876 United States International Exposition in Philadelphia, Pa., before going into storage at Whitney’s Beacon Hill home for nearly three decades.

In 1902, however, an anonymous paid for the statue to be cast in bronze in a foundry in Chicopee, Mass., and soon afterwards, it was unveiled at the intersection of Cambridge and Kirkland streets and Massachusetts Avenue in Harvard Square, proving to be a vindication for Whitney, who died at age 93 in 1915.

“Whitney exemplifies the challenges women have had to face for very long time,” Vizza said. “She was tough. I think women needed grit then and they need grit today, as we know.”

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