Henry Kirke Brown’s Filatrice

American themes and the importance of women in industry

Women play an important role in Henry Kirke Brown’s life and career. Filatrice manifests this strong influence and the significance of women in industrial society.

Henry Kirke Brown’s statuette Filatrice was commissioned in 1850 by the American Art Union, an institution devoted to the cultivation of American art. Yet with its subject and style, its peculiar classical underpinnings, his sculpture diverges from this ideal. Brown’s depiction of a noble woman spinning wool, coupled with the delicate drapery of her ancient dress, resembles classical divine sculptures, such as those of the goddess Eirene or the Fate Clotho. [1] Brown was a revolutionary in the development of a national art, alongside his socially progressive ideals, which influenced his works. Despite its initial classical appearance, Brown chose Filatrice to subtly demonstrate a prominent national theme: the importance of women in modern industry.

Henry Kirke Brown, Filatrice, 1850. Bronze, 20 3/4 in. x 11 1/4 in. x 6 1/2 in. (52.71 cm x 28.58 cm x 16.51 cm). Colby College Museum of Art. The Lunder Collection, 2013.025

Henry Kirke Brown, Filatrice, 1850. Bronze, 20 3/4 in. x 11 1/4 in. x 6 1/2 in. (52.71 cm x 28.58 cm x 16.51 cm). Colby College Museum of Art. The Lunder Collection, 2013.025

Several respected female figures influenced Brown’s work. His wife, Lydia Louise Udall, was his intellectual match, and he very much valued her opinion, such as when he wrote to her about his work, “[Y]ou say you are anxious to see my— [Grief of Sea] but my dear Lydia I fear you will be disappointed when you see it. . ..” [2] Brown revealed that not only was Lydia his greatest critic, but also that her opinion was profoundly influential. Brown’s mother was also his mentor and confidante, and he wrote on several occasions to her about his underwhelming experiences abroad.

Brown had traveled to Italy in 1842 to study the masters, yet he was surprisingly indifferent toward his experiences, writing to his mother from Florence in 1843 about the stagnation of creativity, “In our country everything is new and growing, here every object is a monument of the past—the people seem only to do their little labor to support life—and a life to which seems without the remotest object—they are like the reptiles which crawl among the ruins. . ..” [3] He juxtaposed the inaction of the Italian civilization with the fast-paced bustle of the United States during the Industrial Revolution. His ties to his home country became apparent in the artwork he produced abroad as well, such as the revolutionary sculpture of a Native American boy, which deviated from the classical themes many artists came to study. Art historian Wayne Craven noted the significance of this sculpture, stating, “In choosing the American Indian as the subject of his first ideal piece, Henry Kirke Brown was forming a philosophy of art which held that an art produced by and for Americans should draw its inspiration, in form, style, and subject from America itself.” [4] This desire to refine American art was reflected by his position as chairman of the United States Art Commission, an organization dedicated to endowing the nation with monuments of American style and significance. Brown described the commission’s purpose in a meeting with the Congress: “[I]t is presumed to be the wish of government not only to decorate their present buildings in the best possible manner, but to use the opportunity which the occasion affords to protect and develop national art . . . and our national history, in its application to the decoration of public buildings, should take precedence over all other subjects.” [5]  Brown’s loyalty to national history and national subjects was strongly noted by several friends and acquaintances: “[H]e has always felt that art, to become of importance in this country[,] must treat of national subjects, or those in which the people have an interest and sympathy. . ..” [6] This lens of national interest is rather important when considering the purpose of Filatrice. The sculpture’s conception occurred during a time of great social change for women’s involvement in industry.

Textile mills were a prominent source of employment primarily for women and girls, and one notable textile mill established in Lowell, Massachusetts, during the early nineteenth century even published collections of literature by its female workers called the Lowell Offering. This novel social experiment was noted internationally; Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “This feeling pervades the most trifling habits of life; even the women frequently attend public meetings and listen to political harangues as a recreation after their household labors.” [7] Tocqueville recognized the social advancements that allowed women to become contributing members of the community and economy.

Brown conceptualizes this economic power women held through his goddess-like depiction of a woman spinning wool. Similarities can be drawn between the subject of Filatrice and the mythological weaver Clotho, the spinner of the Three Fates, who created the string symbolic to the life of a specific individual. In Giorgio Ghisi’s engraving The Three Fates, the positioning of Clotho’s head, hands, and clothing is unmistakably identical to that of the woman in Filatrice. [8]  Brown, in Filatrice, evokes a sense of power and control of destiny by giving his subject the appearance of Clotho.

Women influenced Brown’s development as an artist and as a man through their companionship, guidance, and artistic criticisms. Along with Brown’s socially progressive stance, he was an influential figure in the development of a national art and felt strongly that American art should display American themes. One prominent theme in the United States was women’s role in the economy, especially with textiles, and by referencing Clotho, Brown depicted women as holding the fate of the industry. Through Filatrice, Brown expressed the power and necessity of women in industrial society.

[1] Kephisodotos, Marble statue of Eirene (the personification of peace), AD 14–68, Greek and Roman Art (17,338), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York.

[2] Letter to Lydia Louise Udall, 1846, Henry Kirke Brown papers, 1836-1893, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Craven, Wayne, “Henry Kirke Brown in Italy, 1842-1846,” American Art Journal 1, no. 1 (1969): 67, doi:10.2307/1593855.

[5] “Meetings of Congress,” The Daily Globe (Washington, DC), June 11, 1862, Henry Kirke Brown papers, 1836-1893, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

[6] P. V. M., “H. K. Brown’s Studio,” Home Journal, March 15, 1875, Henry Kirke Brown papers, 1836-1893, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

[7] De Tocqueville, Alexis, Democracy in America, New York: Colonial Press, 1900.

[8] Ghisi, Giorgio, The Three Fates Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. 1558–59, Prints, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York.

Works Cited

Craven, Wayne. “Henry Kirke Brown in Italy, 1842-1846.” American Art Journal 1, no. 1 (1969): 65-77. doi:10.2307/1593855.

Ghisi, Giorgio. The Three Fates Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. 1558–59. Prints, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York.

Kephisodotos. Marble statue of Eirene (the personification of peace). AD 14–68. Greek and Roman Art (17,338), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York.

Letter to Lydia Louise Udall. 1846. Henry Kirke Brown papers, 1836-1893. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

“Meetings of Congress.” The Daily Globe (Washington, DC), June 11, 1862. Henry Kirke Brown papers, 1836-1893. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

P. V. M. “H. K. Brown’s Studio.” Home Journal, March 15, 1875. Henry Kirke Brown papers, 1836-1893. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

De Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. New York: Colonial Press, 1900.