From the 1890s to the 1910s, Hettie Anderson (1873-1938) ranked as one of New York’s most sought-after artists’ models, with a client roster including Art Students League faculty and graduates. Yet even as her sculpted and painted likeness was immortalized on buildings, monuments and coins, she never sought attention. She fell into some obscurity after her death, but scholars—including her relatives—have recently brought her accomplishments back to light.
Anderson, who was African American, came to New York in the 1890s from South Carolina, along with other members of her highly educated family. She was hired by sculptors and painters as prominent as John La Farge, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Daniel Chester French, Evelyn Beatrice Longman and Adolph Alexander Weinman. Modeling could be a challenging career path—Anderson’s colleagues Audrey Munson and Evelyn Nesbit were caught up in public scandals involving adultery and murder—but Anderson maintained her privacy, dignity and independence.
“She was a quiet, purposeful person who was very professional and respected as a powerful entity—which resulted in beautiful artworks,”— Willow Hagans, an independent researcher who is also a cousin of Anderson’s.
Hagans and her late husband William E. Hagans first started researching Anderson around 1980, when William’s elderly grandmother Jeanne Wallace McCampbell Lee mentioned that there had been an artists’ model in the family. “Cousin Tootie” was the family nickname for Hettie, whose full name at birth was Harriette Eugenia Dickerson (no one knows the origins of the last name Anderson that she used as an adult). The Haganses, whose scholarly fields have included the history of American coins as well as the Swedish artist Anders Zorn (1860-1920), tirelessly researched Cousin Tootie for decades and published writings about her in periodicals including the American Art Journal
In fall 2020, I joined Willow Hagans on the scholarly trail, after visiting an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art featuring Saint-Gaudens’s reduced-scale version of his larger-than-life allegorical figure of Victory on the monument honoring the Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman at Grand Army Plaza in Manhattan. The Met’s exhibition label noted that Anderson was black, had posed for a number of New York artists around 1900, and had later worked at the Met. My eyes stung for a moment reading that; I realized she could have been standing right where I was standing, looking at a version of younger herself covered in gold. I wondered what that was like, and I was connected with Willow through Henry Duffy, the recently retired curator at the Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park in Cornish, New Hampshire. Willow and I are still exploring many mysteries about the life of Cousin Tootie.
Anderson grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, while Reconstruction was underway and the town was undergoing literal reconstruction—devastating fires had broken out when Sherman’s forces arrived at the end of the Civil War. Her mother Caroline Lee Scott (1839-1928) was a prosperous seamstress who bought an entire street corner before the Civil War. Other family members thrived as builders, professors, pharmacists, physicians, and politicians. Caroline also had a son, Charles Dickerson—his and Hettie’s father is listed in government documents as Benjamin Dickerson. (No other identifying details about Benjamin have surfaced.)
By the late 1800s, as racism blocked professional opportunities for South Carolina’s black population, Anderson’s relatives scattered to major cities in the Midwest and Northeast. Around 1895, she and her mother rented an apartment on Amsterdam Avenue at West 94th Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where they remained for the rest of their lives. They were listed as “white” in Manhattan census records but were not “passing”—that is, they stayed in touch with relatives who were activists in the black world. It is not clear how and why Anderson found her way to classes at the Art Students League—she is said to have studied and modeled there as soon as she migrated northward—and made a leap to the center of the New York art world.
Among her first clients was the artist John La Farge, who rendered her as a willowy Athenian deity in a lunette mural at Bowdoin College’s art museum. Within a few years of her career debut, Saint-Gaudens deemed her “the Goddess-like Miss Anderson.” He considered her “the handsomest model I have ever seen of either sex,” and he relied on her talent for “posing patiently, steadily and thoroughly in the spirit one wished.” When he was commissioned by President Theodore Roosevelt to design gold coins that would rival ancient Greek and Roman precedents, he adapted the Sherman Monument’s Victory into an allegorical figure of Liberty for a $20 gold coin. Roosevelt praised the results as “daring and original” as well as “worthy of this country.”
Saint-Gaudens respected the goddess-like model to the point that he gave her a bust of herself that he had created while completing the Sherman Monument design. In 1908, soon after Saint-Gaudens’s death, Anderson copyrighted the bust, which had been cast in bronze. His family wanted to make replicas for sale, but she refused, insisting it would remain most valuable as “the only one in existence.” She lent it to a Saint-Gaudens retrospective that traveled widely. (In 1990, it surfaced at a Christie’s auction in New York, where the Haganses purchased it.)
She sometimes spent weeks at a time at artists’ country estates, including Daniel Chester French’s Chesterwood in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. French lauded her “perfect faithfulness and thoroughness and conscientiousness” in the workplace. He hired her for Truth, a bas relief of a seer bearing a looking glass and a crystal ball on a bronze vestibule door of the Boston Public Library; The Spirit of Life, a bronze goddess holding a bowl and pine bough in Congress Park in Saratoga Springs, New York; and Mourning Victory, the centerpiece of a Civil War memorial at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts. Anderson also posed for French’s Angel of Peace on the grave of the blueblood philanthropist and art collector Rutherfurd Stuyvesant in northern New Jersey, and Sculpture, an allegorical figure on the grounds of the Saint Louis Art Museum portraying an enthroned woman holding a carving tool and cradling two unfinished human figures. Anderson was hired as well by French’s protégée Evelyn Beatrice Longman, who created numerous public monuments and cemetery memorials. Adolph Alexander Weinman, a mentee and collaborator of French and Saint-Gaudens, adapted her image for Civic Fame, a gilded copper goddess atop the David N. Dinkins Manhattan Municipal Building.
“Because she was so much in demand,” Willow Hagans says, “she could pick and choose which artists she wanted to pose for.”
Anderson nonetheless managed to avoid publicity. A handful of newspaper articles mention her, giving a few details of her appearance and client list. But no reporter seems to have ever interviewed her as they deemed her “of the heroic type.”
In the late 1910s, as wartime shortages slowed the pace of construction and the advent of Cubism reduced demand for goddess-like models, Anderson’s artist friends helped her land a job as a classroom attendant at the Met. She would have walked past her own image in the galleries as sculpted by French and Saint-Gaudens. And in her duties of tidying up the museum’s large collection of lantern slides, she might have filed away photographs on glass of artworks that she had inspired.
Around 1920, she retired, in declining health, yet she left a substantial estate when she died in 1938. She and Caroline are buried in unmarked graves in a mostly white cemetery in Columbia, near Confederate memorials and the burial places of Woodrow Wilson’s family members.
Her likenesses radiate calm, strength and dignity in numerous public places. They also circulate on the market, in the form of statues and $20 gold coins, which sometimes sell for millions of dollars each. In 2023, artworks that Anderson modeled for will be featured in the American Federation of Arts traveling show, Monuments and Myths: The America of Sculptors Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Daniel Chester French.
I visit the Sherman Monument often. I eavesdrop as people take selfies below her sandaled, striding feet. Almost no one reads the nearby Parks Department plaque, explaining the sculpture’s importance and identifying Anderson. I admire her ferocity. I wonder just how many hours she had posed for Saint-Gaudens, “patiently, steadily and thoroughly,” and how much delight she felt when she filed the copyright forms for his gift of her Victory bust.
Eve M. Kahn
Independent scholar Eve Kahn, the former weekly Antiques columnist for The New York Times, is the author of the award-winning book Forever Seeing New Beauties: The Forgotten Impressionist Mary Rogers Williams, 1857-1907 from Wesleyan University Press. She contributes regularly to the Times and to The Magazine Antiques, Apollo magazine and Atlas Obscura. The working title of her biography in progress is Queen of Bohemia Predicts Own Death: The Forgotten Journalist Zoe Anderson Norris, 1860-1914.