The Object at Hand

The circuitous route of Edmonia Lewis' masterwork, a controversial portrayal of Cleopatra at the moment of death, included stints as decor in a Chicago saloon and as a grave marker for a racehorse

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"This [sculpture of Cleopatra] was not a beautiful work, but it was a very original and very striking one . . . [Cleopatra] is seated in a chair; the poison of the asp has done its work and the Queen is dead. The effects of death are represented with such skill as to be absolutely repellant — and it is a question whether a statue of the ghastly characteristics of this one does not overstep the bounds of legitimate art."

So wrote artist William J. Clark jr. in Great American Sculptures (1878) about one of the artworks on display at the Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia. The person who created it, Edmonia Lewis, was the first professional African-American and Native American sculptor. It is symptomatic of her difficult life and neglected career that her most important piece, The Death of Cleopatra, which caused such a stir in Philadelphia 120 years ago, soon dropped out of sight and was not rediscovered until the late 1970s. Miraculously rescued from oblivion, it was recently conserved and has been placed on view at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art (NMAA). "Lost and Found: Edmonia Lewis' Cleopatra" presents the long-missing masterwork, along with other Lewis sculptures in the NMAA collection, through January 5, 1997.

The story of how Lewis' Cleopatra was resurrected involves twists of fate, near disasters and serendipitous discoveries, mixed with scholarly research and curatorial concern. It is the latest chapter in the saga of a talented, determined artist whose life was filled with ambiguities, reversals and triumphs. A minority female with limited training and experience, working in a male-dominated field, she overcame enormous odds to become a skilled and imaginative sculptor. Even today, she remains a mysterious figure, because of a lack of information about her peripatetic early life and last years, as well as the scarcity of surviving sculpture. Much of the mystery was of her own making, growing out of her reticent, elusive personality.

Even Lewis' birthplace is uncertain. It was either Newark, New Jersey, or Ohio or, most probably, upstate New York. Born about 1840, the daughter of a black father and a part-Ojibwa mother, she was orphaned in childhood and, it was later said, had been raised by her mother's people.

With the help of her older brother, in 1859 Lewis entered the Young Ladies Preparatory Department of Oberlin College, the first college in the country to admit women and African-Americans; there, she learned to draw. But trouble came when she was accused of poisoning two white classmates; awaiting the arraignment, she was abducted by a white mob and brutally beaten. The charges against Lewis were dismissed for insufficient evidence; arguing in her defense was African-American lawyer John Mercer Langston, later a Howard University professor, U.S. Minister to Haiti and Congressman.

Leaving Oberlin, Lewis moved to Boston, where abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison arranged for her to study with sculptor Edward A. Brackett. Soon afterward, in her small studio on Tremont Street, she created clay and plaster medallions of Garrison, John Brown and other antislavery stalwarts. Although proud of her heritage, Lewis said she wanted her work to be accepted on its own merits, not "because I am a colored girl." Her most popular work was an 1864 portrait bust of Col. Robert Gould Shaw, the young white Boston Brahmin who died leading the all-black 54th Massachusetts Regiment in the assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, in the Civil War. The following year, with proceeds from sales of plaster copies of the Shaw bust, Lewis sailed for Rome to pursue her career. She was then in her early 20s.

Rome was a gathering place for American writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James and Harriet Beecher Stowe. With its legacy of classicism, and its abundant supply of marble and skilled stonecutters, the city was also a mecca for expatriate American sculptors, notably the aristocratic William Wetmore Story, son of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story.

There was also a contingent of women sculptors grouped around neoclassical sculptor Harriet Hosmer and actress Charlotte Cushman, who made up what Story termed "a set whom I do not like." Lewis was welcomed into the women's circle, described by Henry James as "that strange sisterhood of American 'lady sculptors' who at one time settled upon the seven hills [of Rome] in a white, marmorean flock" (Smithsonian, February 1992).

"One of the sisterhood," James continued in William Wetmore Story and His Friends, "was a negress, whose colour, picturesquely contrasting with that of her plastic material, was the pleading agent of her fame. . . ." Those comments aside, Lewis, along with Hosmer, Margaret Foley, Emma Stebbins and Anne Whitney, helped establish a place for women in the field of sculpture. Working in a studio once occupied by neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova, Lewis at first carved her own marble, not only to save money but to avoid the accusation leveled at Hosmer and other women that their work was really the creation of native stonecutters.

One of Lewis' early Italian works, Forever Free (1867), portrays a black man who has broken the manacles of slavery and a kneeling black woman prayerfully celebrating the news of emancipation. It is now in the Howard University Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. She also executed several versions of Hagar, one of which is now at NMAA. The biblical Egyptian maidservant of Abraham's wife, Sarah, Hagar was cast out into the wilderness. To 19th-century eyes, this sculpture of an outcast, her brow furrowed and hands clasped in despair, symbolized the plight of African-Americans. "I have a strong sympathy for all women who have struggled and suffered," Lewis said.


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