Progression of Art
Bust of Robert Gould Shaw
This bust represents Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the first commander of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, who died in the assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina in July 1863.
It is a traditional 19th century commemorative bust, and the first commercial success for Lewis who chose to represent only the face of the man leaving the bottom portion uncarved. The artist based the portrait on a photograph that she borrowed from Lydia Marie Child, an abolitionist who encouraged much of Lewis' early work in sculpture. Despite Child's concerns that the inexperienced Lewis might not strike an accurate enough likeness to satisfy her Bostonian audience, the artist created a delicate, accurate representation of the Colonel. Child had to concede that the bust was a success. Shaw's family awarded permission to Lewis to execute 100 plaster reproductions. The sales of these reproductions funded Lewis' eventual relocation to Rome, Italy.
Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket
This life-size sculpture depicts a young African American couple at the moment of emancipation. The man is represented standing with his left arm raised, defiantly displaying his broken chain. His left foot rests on the ball connected to the chain. He is bare-chested and his curly hair alludes to his African origin. Kneeling at his side, a woman is joining her hands in prayer. She is fully clothed and her features are much more European. She has long, straight hair.
Originally titled "The Morning of Liberty," this sculpture celebrates the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation that stipulates that "all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious states "shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free." Although female figures in Neoclassical portrayals are often nude or semi-nude, Lewis dresses the woman completely here, and challenges the sexual connotation associated with female slaves. Many scholars have criticized the "whiteness" and the submissive position of the woman, but for Lewis, her figure here is a freed woman performing in her gendered role as defined by 19th century Victorian values. As art history professor Kirsten P. Buick explains, Lewis's representation of a freed couple falls into the Victorian Cult of Womanhood in which a woman signifies submission, piety, and virtue, while a man enacts the roles of being both protective and triumphant.
The fact that the female figure has no specifically African features has been considered by scholars as a way for Lewis to distance herself from her subjects to give her work more credibility in a white-dominated art world. Buick asserts that the artist did not want her public to read her works as too closely tied to their maker. If they possess more Caucasian features, they are more readily relatable for the intended consumer: a white, wealthy art collector of the Victorian era, already conditioned to expect this stylization through exposure to other, similar Neoclassical statuary.
Howard University Gallery, Washington D.C.
The Marriage of Hiawatha
This sculpture is based on the 1855 poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Song of Hiawatha. This fictional tale draws from Native American legends and tells the story of Hiawatha, an Indian Ojibwe warrior. He falls in love with Minehaha, a woman from the rival tribe of the Dakotahs, and marries her. While holding Minehaha's hand in his, Hiawatha puts his other hand on her shoulder. She places her other hand on her heart. The ethnicity of the couple is exclusively indicated by their generalized Native American dress. Minehaha's necklace is a direct allusion to Longfellow's description of it as a symbol of their romantic union. While Hiawatha's facial features appear vaguely Native American, Minehaha's appear to be entirely Caucasian and therefore Neoclassical in style.
Lewis emphasizes the reserve, reverence, and dignity of a poetic love described in Longfellow's poem. Longtime Lewis historian Marilyn Richardson interprets the sculpture as a reference to an easily accessible subject in Lewis' Roman life - that of Cupid and Psyche. A very wide array of ancient sculpture portraying mythological subjects was available for tourists and artists to view and study in museums as well as public and private collections in the Eternal City. For Lewis, an elevation of the once savage 'Indians' Hiawatha and Minehaha to more noble levels was a development worth pictorializing. True to Victorian sensibilities of the time, Hiawatha expresses a protective, dominant persona that protects the more diminutive Minehaha.
Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama
This sculpture depicts Hagar, the servant of the matriarch Sarah in the Bible. As Sarah is barren, she offers Hagar to Abraham so that he can fulfill God's promise to be the father of many nations. However, when Hagar becomes pregnant, Sarah grows very irritated with her and, given full power by Abraham, treats Hagar very harshly. Beaten, pregnant, and humiliated, Hagar runs away to the wilderness. An angel appears and instructs her to return to her master and mistress to accomplish God's will. Hagar abides, returns to Sarah's household and gives birth to Ishmael. God also gives ninety-year old Sarah her own son, Isaac. Tensions between the two women do not dissipate, however. Sarah becomes infuriated when she later sees Ishmael mocking her own son. Hagar is ultimately sent away again to wander, accompanied by Ishmael.
While Hagar is supposed to be an Egyptian, she is highly classicized in this sculpture. Her facial features are Caucasian and her hair is long and straight. She has an elegantly draped tunic that uncovers one of her breasts. She stands and appears to pray, with her hands together. Her expression is stern. At her feet, there is an overturned jug, alluding to the point in the Biblical narrative when she is searching for water in the desert and the angel appears.
A devout Catholic, Lewis uses Hagar as a metaphor for all African American female slaves and their sustenance through faith. Abused by her masters, Hagar is then expelled from the household with her child and no other resources. Her uncovered breast refers to the sexual assault, and emphasizes her vulnerability, as rape was a common crime committed upon female slaves. In addition to these abuses, historian Kristen Buick interprets Hagar as a representation of the despair and dismantling of the African-American family under slavery. By illustrating Hagar's fortitude and faith in God's direction as she wanders in the wilderness, Lewis restores dignity to Hagar as a woman and as a mother.
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Poor Cupid, or Love Ensnared
This small sculpture depicts Cupid caught in a trap while picking a rose. The god is portrayed here as a chubby, winged boy with curly long hair. He carries his classic attributes of the quiver and bow. His facial features are very adult in form. His wrist still inserted into the bow gives a anecdotal tone to the sculpture. The title is both ironic and metaphorical.
This sculpture was probably intended to appeal to the popular taste of visiting American tourists who might have wanted a memento of all of the pagan art on display in Rome. Cupid's attitude is playful and endearing. There are no other known copies of this work, to date.
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
The Death of Cleopatra
This work is considered to be Lewis' masterpiece. Carved in 1876, this massive, two-ton sculpture represents Cleopatra at the moment of her death. The legendary, exotic Egyptian queen committed suicide to avoid being taken as prisoner after the defeat of her armies in a decisive battle with Octavian, who became Augustus Caesar, first leader of the Imperial age of Rome. Her method of suicide was to allow an extremely poisonous asp to bite her. Lewis adorns Cleopatra in her usual attributes of crown, necklace and bracelets, but dresses her in a more or less Neoclassical garment, which alternately drapes her shoulder and waist and uncovers one breast. The throne appears to have been finely sculpted with many details on the back side. Two identical pharaonic heads decorate the arms of the chair.
This sculpture is unusual in the canon of Neoclassical portrayals of Cleopatra, as it somewhat inelegantly emphasizes the queen slumped in death. Slouched in her throne, her head thrown back, and still holding the snake in her right hand, Cleopatra's position is highly dramatic. Her face - lacking any Africanized features which would have pointed to the current, progressive acceptance of being Egyptian as also being Black - remains passive, however.
This monumental sculpture was praised by contemporary critics for its daring expressivity. It commanded a great deal of attention in its debut for the American public, deemed the 'most important sculpture in the American section' in the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. It was given pride of place, located in the highly desirable rotunda exhibition space. Despite Black Americans' intentions to have heightened national visibility in this exposition, Lewis was one of only two African American artists to be ultimately included. Her treatment of a subject that was already popular among Neoclassical sculptors remains unique, and is the subject of much scholarly focus.
Depictions of Cleopatra in death more commonly depicted her romanticized demise while surrounded by African slaves. Lewis portrays the queen alone in her actions immediately preceding her death. For visual source material, Lewis may have relied upon coins struck during the queen's reign, (undoubtedly visible in Roman collections), which depicted Cleopatra with a straight, narrow-nosed profile. This may have been due to the queen's historically accepted but ultimately unproven partial ancestry as Greek or Roman.
Abolitionists in the 19th century championed Egypt as Black Africa and imbued Cleopatra with "evidence of African accomplishment and capability of leadership," as Susanna W. Gold writes. Driven by an inner vision, Lewis' work in this perspective slightly differs from the abolitionists' vision, in that her Cleopatra - as she became a center point of the Centennial Exposition of 1876 - may instead be a kind of personification of Emancipation and its immediate aftereffects, which were for Black Americans rapidly proving to be dismal.
Alternately, Cleopatra was a complex figure who could also be seen as a power-mad, sexually controlling Black woman. According to Kristen Buick, by distancing the Queen from established conventions and suggesting a less ethnic identity, Lewis may have wished to separate all black women from this unusual conception of the Queen. The abundance of details, the exposure of the body and the unique face force the viewer to consider the figure as Cleopatra only. Lewis' forces the viewer to confront the death of a singular figure removed from us in history, and so she cannot be used as an allegory or a self-portrait. This strategy enabled Lewis to keep her identity as a women artist of mixed race separate from the queen historically framed as a woman of ethnicity.
For several years, Lewis' sculpture of Cleopatra literally disappeared from view as an important work by an American woman artist of color. Unsold after the Exposition, it was placed in storage. It was later sold to a gambler who elected to use the sculpture as a centerpiece in a large burial monument for a prized racehorse named Cleopatra, placed in the grandstand of Chicago's Forest Park racetrack. It eventually wound up outdoors in a construction storage yard elsewhere in Chicago. The sculpture remained unprotected from the elements for a long time. A local Boy Scout troop attempted to 'improve' the sculpture by painting it. In 1985, a local dentist purchased the work and stored it in the Forest Park Mall. Once the dentist contacted the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a specialist on the career and work of Edmonia Lewis was notified, the sculpture was finally properly recognized and donated to the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in 1994.
In a number of ways, the interpretation and object history of this seminal work parallels the story of an extremely unusual artist of 19th century America.
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.