By Jerome Curley
When working on the forthcoming book, Legendary Locals of Salem, with my co-authors, Dorothy Malcolm and Nelson Dionne, there were people we couldn’t include for a number of reasons. Our initial lists had to be pared down to the proper number, categorized, then researched. The biggest hurdle and frustration in the research was finding useable photographs that fit stringent publishing guidelines. This filter resulted in a number of exclusions of some compelling Salemites.
Fortunately, this column allows me to highlight some of these people in more detail. One such person who didn’t make the book cut but whose story I found very compelling was Louisa Lander. She was a talented woman who never achieved deserved fame due her being a victim of the culture and times.
Louisa Lander was born in 1826 at her parents home in Barton Square, Salem From a young age, Louisa had shown a talent for modeling in clay. She modeled heads in clay and wax for her dolls, sculpted figures in stone using a penknife, and carved a cameo without having instruction. When she was six years old, the family moved to her deceased grandmother, Elizabeth Derby West’s Oak Hill Estate in Danvers, (now North Shore Shopping Center). When Louisa was in her early twenties and had recently lost her mother she and her family moved to 5 Summer Street, (now the Salem Inn), which was formerly the home of her grandfather, Nathaniel West.
In 1855 she sailed to Italy where she became the only student of the famous sculptor, Thomas Crawford, who had been living in Rome for twenty years. He had produced a large number of U.S. public monuments, such as the figure above the dome of the U.S. Capitol, as well as a number of statues now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. After two years of study with Crawford, where he had 50 assistants working on his many commissions, Louisa suddenly found herself without a mentor when Crawford unexpectedly died at age 44.
Rather than seek another teacher, Louisa set out on her own, opening her own studio and pursuing commissions. During a trip to London she saw drawings of Native Americans from the ill fated expedition to Roanoke Island, NC and learned the story of Virginia Dare.
Dare was the first English child born in America. In 1587 the settlers were left on Roanoke Island while their ship returned to England for more supplies and aid. Due to a European war, the relief expedition didn’t return until 1590, when they found no trace of the 117 colonists. Inspired by the possibility that the colonists were absorbed into a Native American tribe, Louisa sculpted a statue of what Virginia Dare would look like as a young Native American woman. This statue, while beautiful, was shocking to some who didn’t appreciate its partial nudity.
In 1858 Nathaniel Hawthorne and his family arrived in Rome during their extended time in Europe after Hawthorne left his Consul Post in England. Hawthorne became acquainted with the artist community in Rome through fellow Salemite and sculptor Joseph Story whose father, Judge Story, had entertained him in Salem. Shortly after Hawthorne’s arrival, Louisa introduced herself to Hawthorne and became friends with him and his family. She visited frequently, accompanied them on excursions and was considered a family friend.
Hawthorne admired her work, especially Virginia Dare, and gave her a commission for a bust of himself. In his diary, the 54 year old Hawthorne wrote of his admiration of the 32 year old Louisa. From his diary entries and subsequent descriptions of Hilda, a character based on Louisa in his book, The Marble Faun, it appears he was quite taken with her beauty and talent. This admiration and commission didn’t sit well with others in the community.
While Louisa was away in America pursuing commissions, vicious rumors of her having posed nude for artists and being overly familiar with a man circulated and were relayed to Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Apparently, William Wetmore Story, who considered himself the leader of the art community, took it upon himself to form a board of inquiry into her behavior and required that she explain herself while she was still travelling. Her non appearance constituted admission of guilt. Upon her return, she refused to respond because it was beneath her dignity and inconsistent with her innocence. When she, with her visiting sister, attempted to deliver mail from Longfellow and Salem friends and relatives to Nathaniel Hawthorne he refused to see them.
Eventually, he wrote her a note stating that as guardian of his domestic circle he had to be very cautious because of her reputation. He wrote, as if convinced of her guilt, urging that she vindicate herself by opening her life to scrutiny. A copy of the letter made by his wife, Sophia, attesting to her involvement in the response, was among Hawthorne’s papers. Hawthorne had gone from a man, who had told a friend that he liked Louisa exceedingly much and felt her talent deserved recognition, to one of his intolerable Puritan characters denigrating her and her talent.
There appear to have been many factors at play in this treatment of Louisa. Foremost was probably her fellow artist’s resentment of her talent, beauty and being commissioned by Hawthorne. Hawthorne’s obvious infatuation, his fear of scandal, his wife’s reactions and his impressionable children’s fondness for the fiercely independent Louisa came together, causing him to sever all contact.
With her refusal to answer to the former lawyer, Story, she was considered guilty and shunned by the art community, who so damaged her reputation that she was unable to procure commissions for her work. Her cousin, the famous sculptor, John Rogers, wrote that she snapped her fingers at Rome and its ruling men, refusing to submit.
Lander left Rome in 1859, visited Russia, then returned home to Summer Street in Salem. She had the statue of Virginia Dare shipped home only to have the ship sink. After two years underwater, she was able to have it recovered. She then sold it to a New York collector who had it in his studio which burned down, killing him. His estate then refused to pay for the statue and it was returned to Salem, where Louisa exhibited it to raise funds for wounded Civil War soldiers. In 1862, her brother, Frederick, the famous explorer and Union General, had died of wounds from a Civil War battle.
In 1863, she put on a successful exhibition of her art in Boston. A major sale of her Virginia Dare, now labeled the National Statue, fell through at the last moment. During the Civil War, commissions were very scarce.
Louisa remained in Salem where she did some painting but apparently didn’t receive any commissions for her sculptures. She did a number of life-sized sculptures of heroic women over the course of her career that were all well received. Unfortunately, the whereabouts of most of her pieces is unknown. Her statue of Virginia Dare now has a place of honor in the Elizabethan gardens on Roanoke island, NC, while her bust of Hawthorne is in the Concord Free Library, Concord Mass. A cameo she carved is a listed possession of the Peabody Essex Museum.
In 1893, Louisa Lander moved to Washington D.C., where she remained until her death in 1923 at 97 years. In Washington, she was near the many statues she had seen come to life in the studio of Crawford at the beginning of her ill fated career that shows what happened to a talented, independent, beautiful woman in the wrong era.
Legendary Locals of Salem will be released In October. A book launch party will be held at the Hawthorne Hotel at 6 pm on Oct. 23rd ..all are welcome…