When Cleopatra Died Again
The artwork by Edmonia Lewis, the first African American sculptor in the classical mode, epitomizes her immense talent
The Centennial exhibition of 1876 was a massive celebration that sought to promote patriotic unity in the wake of the Civil War, drawing nearly ten million visitors to Philadelphia’s Fairmount Grounds. Among the 500-plus sculptors with work on view, only one was Black: Edmonia Lewis.
Her Death of Cleopatra established Lewis as one of the country’s premier sculptors and, the scholar Naurice Frank Woods Jr. wrote in 2009, enabled Lewis “to lay a solid foundation for women of color to begin ascending in artistic relevance in a profession then largely dominated by skeptical, unsupportive, and inflexible white males.”
Lewis gave varying accounts of the circumstances of her birth. Today, historians believe she was born in 1844 in upstate New York to a free Black man named Lewis and a Chippewa woman, who gave her daughter the first name of Wildfire. Both parents died before the child turned 5, so she lived with her maternal aunts near Niagara Falls. In 1859, she enrolled at Oberlin College under the name Edmonia, her education financed by the fortune her older brother Samuel had earned in California during the gold rush. At Oberlin, “nascent signs of her artistic skills were revealed,” writes art historian Charmaine A. Nelson. Yet her time there was brief. In January 1862, Lewis’ two white roommates accused her of poisoning their wine with Spanish fly, a toxin produced by the blister beetle, often used in those days as an aphrodisiac. News of the charge spread through the town, and before her arrest and trial, Lewis was brutally beaten outside her home by a mob of white vigilantes. She was acquitted, but a year later was accused of stealing art supplies and expelled.
Frederick Douglass encouraged her to settle in Boston, where she fell in with the well-known abolitionists Lydia Child and William Lloyd Garrison—and the acclaimed sculptor Edward Augustus Brackett, who became a mentor. Lewis’ skills matured, and she supported herself by selling clay cameo portraits and busts of popular figures such as Garrison and John Brown before decamping to Europe in 1865.
Lewis visited London, Paris and Florence before settling in Rome, where she joined a group of expatriate American sculptors including William Wetmore Story and Harriet Hosmer.
The Death of Cleopatra, carved in white marble, depicts Egypt’s most famous queen in the moments after her suicide. Two sphinx heads flank the queen, representing her twin children, a boy and girl. “Lewis took a bold approach in depicting the ancient queen deceased, and some critics were revolted,” says Karen Lemmey, the Lucy S. Rhame curator of sculpture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Indeed, though one of her fellow artists, William J. Clark, considered Lewis a sculptor of “genuine endowments,” he responded to Cleopatra with something close to disgust: “The effects of death are represented with such skill as to be absolutely repellent—and it is a question whether a statue of the ghastly characteristics of this one does not overstep the bounds of legitimate art,” he wrote in 1878. Still, according to the People’s Advocate, a Black weekly, the public was enthralled: “The statue excites more admiration and gathers larger crowds around it than any other work of art in the vast collection of Memorial Hall.”
After the centennial, Lewis returned to Rome and spent the rest of her life in Europe. As the neo-Classical style fell out of fashion, Lewis slipped into obscurity. Not until 2011 did the biographer Marilyn Richardson confirm, via census and medical records, that Lewis died in London in 1907.
For nearly a century, The Death of Cleopatra was lost, like much of Lewis’ other work. It served for a time as décor in a Chicago saloon; a racehorse owner bought it to mark the grave of a favorite steed. In the late 1970s, it was found in a Chicago storage yard. The Historical Society of Forest Park oversaw restoration, removed graffiti and replaced the missing chin and nose. The society gave Cleopatra to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1994.
Lewis never saw the recognition she deserved, but her legacy is enjoying a renewed interest: Besides groundbreaking research being conducted by Richardson and others, the U.S. Postal Service released a stamp honoring the artist in January, ensuring that Lewis, who exhibited so widely in Europe, finally gets the coast-to-coast American tour she deserves.
*Editor's Note, 4/15/2022: A previous version of this article referred to Antony and Cleopatra’s ‘twin sons.’ In fact, the twins were a boy and girl.