Clasped Hands of Elizabeth and Robert Browning

Clasped Hands of Elizabeth and Robert Browning

Contributor: Lene Østermark-Johansen

Location: National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington. Gift of Molly F. Sheppard

Description: An encounter in Rome in 1853 between the Brownings and the American sculptor Harriet Hosmer resulted in a life-long friendship and in this plaster cast of the poets’ hands, a year after Hosmer had become apprenticed to the English John Gibson in Rome. The Brownings had married in secret in London in 1846 and eloped to Italy, where they settled in Florence. The life-casting of their hands, subsequently joined into one compact piece, is a peculiar artwork, metonymic, truncated, indexical. The imprint of Elizabeth’s aging nails, thin veins, and atrophied right hand resting in Robert’s larger, firmer hand conveys the texture of skin and bone structure, giving the modern spectator a sense of being unusually close to the two long-dead poets: Elizabeth was 47 years old, Robert 41, when the casts were taken, and the eeriness of these hands, detached from their respective bodies, make us wonder about the purpose of this piece of sculpture.

Were Hosmer’s Clasped Hands intended for private or for public use? Are we looking at a piece of scientific documentation or at a sentimental object of an intimate nature? What kinds of touch do these two hands symbolize? Friendly and collegial touch? Erotic touch? The embodied presence of the clasped hands leaves a trace of one upon the other, as the duality of human touch involves both touching and being touched. The synecdochic hands evoke the Brownings’ shared professional lives as poets, while the scalloped sleeve suggests femininity and the plain cuff masculinity. Since Roman times, the socalled ‘fede ring’ (from the Italian ‘mani in fede’, ‘hands in trust’) of two hands clasping, had served as European betrothal or wedding rings. Horatio Nelson and Emma Hamilton’s fede rings of 1805 may provide an example of an iconography which may have inspired Hosmer. Mutual strength, inseparability––in life, in death––are some of the messages conveyed by Hosmer’s double portrait which invites us to consider whether the hand or the face best sums up the individual.

Clasped Hands is the only piece in the openly lesbian Hosmer’s oeuvre which evokes heteronormative marital love. Barrett Browning admired Hosmer’s emancipated lifestyle and her taking up a predominantly male profession, and insisted, according to Hosmer, that only she, rather than a professional cast maker, carried out the casting: ‘I then conceived the idea of casting their hands and asked Mrs. Browning if she would consent. “Yes” she said “provided you will cast them yourself but I will not sit for the Formatore”’ (Carr 92). By 1853 both Hosmer and Barrett Browning were great admirers of the French novelist George Sand (1804-1876) whom the Brownings had met only in 1852. The subsequent year the English poetess composed two laudatory sonnets ‘To George Sand––A Desire’ and ‘To George Sand: A Recognition’, celebrating her ability to contain both male and female within her. It is quite likely that the casts of George Sand’s and Fréderic Chopin’s hands, undertaken by Sand’s son-in-law Auguste Clésinger, may have given Hosmer and Barrett Browning the idea for Clasped Hands. In 1847 Clésinger had made a cast of Sand’s right arm and hand and when Chopin died of tuberculosis in 1849 Clésinger was called in to make his death mask and to take a cast of his left hand.

The hands of the two former lovers were never joined into one piece of sculpture; the contrast between the living and the dead hand inevitably brings to mind the haunting poem which the tubercular John Keats composed in 1819 in the margins of his manuscript poem ‘The Cap and Bells’:

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d–see here it is–
I hold it towards you.

The Brownings’ clasped hands toy with the living and the dead, with the love that reaches across the grave. By the mid-nineteenth century, clasped hands had become a popular tombstone motif, both in Europe and in Northern America (Foster, Freeland, Patterson), and given the obvious signs of aging in both hands in Hosmer’s sculpture, the awareness of approaching death cannot be ignored. The iconographic convention in the tombstone motif, with the right hand as the masculine, life-giving one, and the left hand as the feebler and most often feminine one, is echoed in Hosmer’s work. As Marcia Pointon has pointed out (190), Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese (1847) chronicle the female poet’s escape from Death through Love and abounds in imagery of lovers’ hands which unite, as in the opening lines of sonnet 24:

Let the world’s sharpness like a clasping knife
Shut in upon itself and do no harm
In this close hand of Love, now soft and warm,
And let us hear no sound of human strife
After the click of the shutting.  Life to life—
I lean upon thee, Dear, without alarm,
And feel as safe as guarded by a charm
Against the stab of worldlings, who if rife
Are weak to injure.

When death did arrive, in 1861 and 1889 respectively, Elizabeth and Robert were buried far apart: in the Protestant Cemetery in Florence, Robert at a state funeral in Westminster Abbey. Despite proposals to move Elizabeth from Florence to rest beside her husband in Poets’ Corner, only the centenary of her birth granted her inclusion in the Dead Poets’ Male Society: the inscription ‘His wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning––1806–1861––is buried in Florence’ was added to Robert’s memorial plaque (Matthews 240-249). Whether we regard it as an anatomical study, a private relic, or a public monument, Hosmer’s Clasped Hands commemorate the two fellow poets, husband and wife, friends, and colleagues with greater equality than the official memorial plaque.

Date: 1853

Creator:  Harriet Goodhue Hosmer

Media rights:  National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington. Gift of Molly F. Sheppard

Object type: Plaster cast. Two plaster casts exist, together with eight bronze copies:

Format:  8.26 cm x 20.96 cm x 11.43 cm


Carr, Cornelia, ed., Harriet Hosmer: Letters and Memoirs (London: John Lane, the Bodley Head, 1913)

 Fein, Katherine, ‘“The Sense of Nearness”: Harriet Hosmer’s Clasped Hands and the Materials and Bodies of Nineteenth-Century Life Casting’, British Art Studies issue 14 (November 2019), 10.17658/issn.2058-5462/issue-14/kfein

Foster, Gary S. and Lisa New Freeland, ‘Hand in Hand Til Death Doth Part: A Historical Assessment of the Clasped-Hands Motif in Rural Illinois’, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 100: 2 (Summer, 2007), 128-146

Gopinah, Gabrielle, ’Harriet Hosmer and the Feminine Sublime’, Oxford Art Journal 28:1 (2005), 61-81

Matthews, Samantha, Poetical Remains: Poets’ Graves, Bodies, and Books in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)

Patterson, Nancy-Lou, ‘United above though Parted Below: The Hand as Symbol on Nineteenth-Century Southwest Ontario Gravestones’, Markers: The Journal of the Association for Gravestone Studies 6 (1980), 180–206

Pointon, Marcia, ‘Casts, Imprints, and the Deathliness of Things: Artifacts at the Edge’, Art Bulletin (96:2 (2014), 170–195

San Juan, Rose Marie, ’The Horror of Touch: Anna Morandi’s Wax Models of Hands’, Oxford Art Journal 34:3 (2011), 433-447