Daphne is Hosmer’s first fully professional sculpture or, as she once claimed, “my first child.” Rather than sculpt a full figure, she opted sensibly for a relatively straightforward type: a bust portrait of an idealized young woman. Though such busts have a long tradition in Western art, Hosmer was most immediately influenced by fellow American expatriate Hiram Powers and his extremely popular bust of Greek goddess Proserpine. Modeled ten years before Daphne, Proserpine was one of Powers’ greatest commercial successes with more than 175 marble and plaster replicas recorded. A young sculptor of Hosmer’s ambition would have to have been impressed. In Greek mythology Daphne was a naiad, a water nymph, and the daughter of a river god. Though there are numerous versions of the story of Daphne and Apollo, Hosmer likely drew inspiration from the account in the Metamorphoses of the Roman poet Ovid. In brief, Daphne becomes the unwanted object of affection for the god Apollo who pursues her relentlessly. Answering her desperate appeal, her father transforms Daphne into a laurel tree—her “metamorphosis.” Hosmer depicts the young nymph with head cast down, stoically accepting her fate, or, as the artist put it in a letter, “just sinking away into the laurel leaves.” (The use of laurel leaves was probably inspired by the fringe of acanthus leaves on Hiram Powers’ Proserpine.) When Daphne made its American debut in 1854, a reviewer in the Boston Telegraph added all the dramatic color that was absent from Hosmer’s conception: The modest Nymph, shrinking from the fierce pursuit of the enamored Apollo, blushes as plainly as the spotless marble of her cheeks can blush, and with downcast look sees the coming on of the swift metamorphosis by which the gods have interposed to save her from the rude passion of the God of Day. Hosmer’s choice of Daphne as the subject of her first independent work has been much discussed by art historians, many interpreting the nymph’s horrific sacrifice to escape possession by the god as a veiled reference to Hosmer’s willful defiance of convention to remain a single woman.
Purchased with funds provided by the Calvin and Marisa Allen Foundation, Anne Allen Cheatham, and Lizzie Cheatham McNairy and Charlie McNairy on behalf of the Matrons of the Arts Initiative, and by the bequest of Carlisle Adams