Hettie Anderson Was Anything But a Passive Muse

Her face has gazed over midtown Manhattan traffic, hordes of tourists, and guests coming and going from the famed Plaza Hotel for over a century. In Saint-Gaudens’s “William Tecumseh Sherman” (1903) in Manhattan’s Grand Army Plaza, she is winged Victory, striding before the titular figure with one hand raised, the other holding a palm frond. But it wasn’t until 2023 that Hettie Anderson received official public recognition in words, rather than in likeness. 

Almost a thousand miles away in her native South Carolina, a historic marker placed by the South Carolina African American Heritage Commission stands on the site of the house Anderson was born in and later owned. Upon the metal plaque, she is described as an “acclaimed African American art model of the Gilded Age.” Indeed, she was the muse for many oft-commissioned American artists at the turn of the century, like Daniel Chester French, John La Farge, Evelyn Beatrice Longman, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who called her “the handsomest model I have ever seen of either sex.”  

The story of Anderson’s life comes to us, in the 21st century, full of holes, pieced together more often through public documents and letters describing her as a model than through her own words. Such gaps in history are common to those who are the subjects rather than the creators of artworks, and are even larger for her, as a Black woman. 

Though she personifies Union triumph in that sculpture, Hettie Anderson was born after the Civil War as Harriette Eugenia Dickerson, around 1873. Her family was listed as “free people of color” before the war, and her mother Caroline Scott owned property. It is likely because of the brutal treatment of Black citizens under Jim Crow laws that she left the South with her mother to find work in New York City, as so many other Black Americans did during the Great Migration. 

In the 1890s, the light-skinned Anderson (it is unclear why she changed her name) settled on the Upper West Side, and began working as a seamstress while taking classes at the Art Students League and modeling. Anderson was listed in the census as “white,” though she did not deny her family heritage, welcoming her relatives as visitors in New York. A memoir edited by Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s son Homer suggests he was aware of her racial background, but it is not certain how much her artist-employers did know about her race.

Her “goddess-like” poise (as Saint-Gaudens described it in a letter to artist Anders Zorn) made her a popular model for allegorical figures, which were common elements in the city monuments, municipal buildings, memorials, and the public parks being built around the country before and at the turn of the century. On top of the Greek figure of Nike for Saint-Gaudens’s sculpture, she also posed as Civic Fame, for Adolph Weinman’s figure on top of what is now the David N. Dinkins Manhattan Municipal Building (1913); Truth, for Daniel Chester French’s bronze door reliefs at the Boston Public Library (1897), and a goddess, in John La Farge’s mural Athens at Bowdoin College (1898).

Anderson’s face will also be familiar to coin collectors. Around 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt approached Saint-Gaudens with the idea of creating a currency with a gravitas worthy of the nation. To Saint-Gaudens, only one model fit the bill: Hettie Anderson. He needed her “badly,” as he wrote to a fellow artist who was busy working with her at the time, begging him to let her model for the coin instead. Indeed, a century later in 2021, a minting of that $20 dollar gold coin made headlines when it achieved a hammer price of $18.9 million at Sotheby’s, a record for a coin at auction. 

As she got older, and modeling jobs dried up, Anderson secured a job at the Metropolitan Museum working in the museum’s classrooms, thanks to the help of her artist friends. She died in 1938. Little else is known about her later years. 

So how did the story of a figure who was lauded in her time become obscure? Of course, the artist’s model is by definition a passive figure, contributing to an artwork by her presence rather than any direct creative action. 

Anderson, however, was not passive in her life: her popularity allowed her to be selective about when and for whom she sat. Taking pride in her work, and understanding the complexities of how to preserve her property’s value, she refused the Saint-Gaudens family’s request to copy an early study of her as Victory gifted to her by the artist, though she lent it to a retrospective of the late artist’s work shown at the Metropolitan Museum and elsewhere between 1908 and 1910. She acquired a copyright for the work in 1908. 

Civic Fame atop the Municipal Building 01
Adolph Alexander Weinman, “Civic Fame” (1913) (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Unfortunately, it may have been because of this force of presence that she was struck from the record by the Saint-Gaudens family. When asked about the inspiration behind his father’s famous figures, Homer Saint-Gaudens denied the need to identify them, writing in his father’s edited memoirs: “In reality … in all examples of my father’s ideal sculpture, little or no resemblance can be traced to any model, since he was always quick to reject the least taint of what he called ‘personality’ in such instances.” Whether out of petty revenge, racial prejudice, or to deflect scandal (the elder Saint-Gaudens was romantically involved with another of his artist models), Homer Saint-Gaudens also removed Anderson’s bust, which the artist had inscribed to her, from the official catalog of his father’s work. It was not added back in until 1982, which ushered in a new era of interest in Anderson’s life. 

The revival of Anderson’s story is and continues to be thanks to the efforts of a few dedicated individuals who recognized the gap between the frequency of Anderson’s likeness in the history of American art and the amount of scholarship on her life. Willow and William Hagans, family members of Anderson (who was known as “Cousin Tootie”); Karen Strickland, a South Carolina historian; and independent scholar Eve Kahn, have all dedicated time and resources to telling Anderson’s story. 

Hettie Anderson is buried in Elmwood Cemetery in her hometown, where her once unmarked grave now bears a headstone with her name. It was financed by South Carolina’s Numismatic Association and the Midlands Coin Club, in partnership with the state’s African American Heritage Commission. The gravestone, placed in June 2023, features a carved rendering of the famous coin, a monument to both the woman and her work.

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