Harriet Hosmer's Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra portrays the ruler of Palmyra (now Syria) who conquered Egypt and much of Asia Minor but was eventually defeated by the Roman Emperor Aurelian in A.D. 272. After her capture, Zenobia was marched through Rome in chains. Hosmer's heroic bust shows the queen's serene resolve at this tragic moment and emphasizes her strength as well as her beauty. A delicately modeled toga covers her sturdy frame, and her face is outlined by waves of neatly cascading hair and a crown decorated with scrollwork. Although the chains of Hosmer's original full-length sculpture are missing, the emotion of the bust is heightened by Zenobia's facial expression. With her head tilted down and her lips slightly parted, the queen appears resigned rather than remorseful.
Like many of her male colleagues during mid-century, Hosmer traveled to Rome to complete her training and pursue a career. She became a leading artistic figure in Italy. Not only her artistic skill but also her "industry" and "modest confidence" earned her the respect of her instructor, English sculptor John Gibson, and other male friends. As a woman who defied traditional notions of femininity, Hosmer was naturally attracted to subjects that also challenged conventional roles. She completed several ambitious sculptures of female subjects before turning to Zenobia in 1857. The artist exhibited this sculpture widely in Europe and the United States during the 1860s, winning herself critical acclaim and more commissions for smaller replicas and heroic busts like this one.
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