“That has to be an 1860’s statue,” I thought as the hairstyle of the marble woman caught my eye. Her dress was not Civil War era, though, and not really Greco-Roman classic as if she was a goddess of liberty, so I read the descriptive sign.
Lady Godiva. Um, okay, who was she? And is there any significance to the sculpture which was created by Anne Whitney and displayed for the benefit of the National Sailors’ Fair in Boston during the late autumn of 1864?
First, a little Medieval legend…
As the story goes, Lady Godiva was an Anglo-Saxon woman who lived Coventry, England during the 11th Century A.D. Her name likely was Godgifu, meaning “God’s gift” and she was known for giving to the church and monasteries. A historic chronicler from the early 13th Century wrote down the first identified version of the saga:
Longing to free the town of Coventry from the oppression of a heavy tax, Lady Godiva begged her husband with urgent prayers, for the sake of Jesus and his mother Mary, that he would free the town from the toll, and from all other heavy burdens. The earl rebuked her sharply. She was asking for something that would cost him much money, and he forbade her to raise the subject with him again. But, with a woman’s persistence, she would not stop pestering her husband, until he finally gave her this reply. “Mount your horse, and ride naked before all the people, through the market of the town, from on end to the other, and your return you shall have your request.” To which Godiva replied, “But will you give me permission if I am ready to do it?” “I will,” her husband replied. Whereupon the countess, beloved of God, loosed her hair and let down her tresses, which covered the whole of her body like a veil. And then, mounting her horse, and attended by two knights, she rode through the market place, without being seen, except her fair legs. And having completed the journey, she returned with gladness to her astonished husband, and obtained of him what she had asked. Earl Leofric freed the town of Coventry and its inhabitants from the taxes.[i]
So was it true? Likely to some extent. Whether she was symbolically unclothed by not wearing signs of her noble rank or literally is unclear. But Lady Godiva did exist, and she actually inherited her husband’s lands after his death which meant that her estate was listed in the Domesday Book which was a survey and census.
Why would 19th Century sculptress Anne Whitney choose this woman and story as the basis for art? True, Lady Godiva and the story has been in the inspiration for other arts pieces, but most take the opportunity for a more literally interpretation of the legend. Anne Whitney’s sculpture is described as “her moment of decision…removing her belt, but gaze is directed upward, recalling traditional representations of saints and holy figures.”[ii] Perhaps it is helpful to understand more about the artist to better appreciate this 1860’s work of art.
Born in 1821, Anne Whitney grew up in Massachusetts and was well educated by private tutors. Around 1855 she began sculpting and studying art, an unusual occupation for a woman to pursue beyond the hobby stage in that era. Whitney believed that she could express her views about social issues through art instead of writing. This caused her endeavors to typically reflect her beliefs which included abolition and women’s rights. By 1860 she had established a studio in Watertown, Massachusetts, and began studying and creating full-length figures. Two statues Africa and Lady Godiva were completed and displayed during the Civil War years; the statues were exhibited together in Boston, and depicted breaking free from slavery and sacrifice for the relief of the needy.
Lady Godiva’s story—which had been recently romanticized in an 1840 Tennyson poem—offered a perfect opportunity for Whitney to make an artist statement about women giving up something in a noble and even modest way for the greater good of her community. Set against the backdrop of the American Civil War and the boundaries that women were already pushing, the statue perhaps takes a deeper meaning. While women were not disrobing and walking around cities for a stunt against oppression or taxation, 1860’s women were leaving the shelter of their homes and stepping out to organize, nurse, pursue activism, or other “non-traditional” tasks for the greater good of their communities or the war effort. By choosing to create the moment of decision in Lady Godiva’s story, Whitney perhaps reflected or encouraged the bold decisions that living women were making.
Notices about the exhibition of the Lady Godiva statue appeared in November 1864 in the Boston Evening Transcript, and at that time the figure could be viewed as part of a gallery fundraiser to benefit Federal sailors.[iii] Earlier in 1864, the same paper ran an interesting description and request related to the statue:
Lady Godiva by Gaslight.
There is now exhibiting at the rooms of Messrs. Child & Jenks, a statue of Godiva. The artist has hitherto made no claims on the public; she has asked none of the aid which is generally considered the right of genius; she has not been sent abroad, nor trumpeted at home. Quietly pursuing her art, devoting herself wholly to the realization of a very high ideal, adopting methods called original, and often smiled at by those who are content with less, we think Anne Whitney shows in this statue a claim to public confidence. She has chosen the moment depicted by Tennyson, when, driven to her bower, Godiva “Unclapsed the wedded eagles of her belt.”
In the marble this statue has risen to new power, and we trust will soon find a purchaser. Every line of the figure bends to the tender, womanly timid impulses of the wife’s nature, but the head might have belonged to Milton’s Sabrina. It is at once chaste and brave, able to do, and long to have done—just lifted as it were above “the calm translucent wave” of her thought. The light in the Gallery does not do justice to the statue. Will not the artist permit us to see it by gaslight.”[iv]
It was not readily clear if the statue was later displayed with the requested lighting in Boston that year.
However, Whitney’s Lady Godiva stands in splendid gallery lighting in the 21st Century in the Dallas Museum of Art. Her Medieval-influenced dress and story matched with a loose version of an 1860’s lady’s hairstyle presents a wonderful contrast. A blending of stories and a reminder that woman across the centuries have been “brave [and] able to do”—something that the Northern women viewing the statue might have found relatable during the difficult and sacrificial Civil War years.
[i] Robert Lacey, Great Tales from English History, (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2003). Page 83-88. Quote on Page 84.
[ii] Sign at the Dallas Museum of Art. (Visited September 2021)
[iii] Boston Evening Transcript, November 14, 1864, Page 3, Advertisement. (Accessed via Newspapers.com)
[iv] Boston Evening Transcript, May 31, 1864, Page 2, “Lady Godiva by Gaslight.” (Accessed via Newspapers.com)