The Iconoclastic Sculptor of Cleopatra Was Her Own Kind of Queen | At the Smithsonian
One hundred and fifteen years after her death, pioneering black and Native American sculptor Edmonia Lewis – the first American woman of color to achieve international recognition in this artistic discipline – is having a moment. In January, the United States Postal Service honored her with a forever stamp. And in June, Lewis finally graduated from Oberlin College, more than a century and a half after she was forced to leave without graduating.
The circumstances of his premature departure had been unjust. Lewis was charged (and acquitted) of poisoning two of her white housemates, who were caught taking a sleigh ride with two men in defiance of Oberlin’s ban on socializing without supervision, and got defended by claiming that Lewis had slipped them the aphrodisiac Spanish Fly.
Oberlin was unconvinced, but the school constable eventually arrested Lewis to protect her from further harm after a group of men abducted, stripped and beat her. The attackers may have been instigated to commit these crimes by a series of inflammatory articles in Cleveland Ordinary Merchant. The newspaper had long argued that Oberlin’s mixed student population — and in particular its willingness to admit black students at a time when 90% of the black population of the United States was enslaved — were both disasters in the making. and looking for stories to prove. his case.
Recovered from her injuries and cleared of poisoning charges, Lewis was eventually asked to leave after a teacher alleged, without proof, that she had stolen art supplies.
Lewis biographer Kirsten Buick spoke to The side door host Lizzie Peabody for the 2019 episode “Finding Cleopatra,” a season 4 classic that the National Portrait Gallery, home to a gorgeous c. 1870 photograph by Henry Rocher, recommends listeners revisit. (They hosted the episode, with a new introduction from the museum director and Portraits podcast host Kim Sajet, on the Portraits feed this month.)
One of Lewis’s signature pieces, The Death of Cleopatra, fell out of sight for about a century before curator and historian Marilyn Richardson found it in a warehouse in a suburban Chicago mall in 1988. As Richardson tells Peabody, the white marble sculpture of 3 000 pounds had spent a period as a decoration inside a saloon – having been acquired by “a member of the saloon underworld”, who may have meant it as a memorial to his beloved horse, Cleopatra – before being displayed on a golf course, outside a torpedo factory and finally, in a storage room among chintzy holiday decorations. Fortunately, the artwork now resides in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Cleopatra was a frequent portrait subject in the 19th century. But she was also a great subject of artistic interpretation, because no one knew what the former queen, who died in 30 BC, looked like.
Lewis’s choice to sculpt Cleopatra with distinctly African facial features was supported by her own research – she went to the Vatican and examined coins minted with the profile of the Egyptian ruler while the queen was still alive – but still subject to interpretation as a political act in its time.
“For abolitionists, Cleopatra was a symbol of what black Africans could do if left to their own devices,” says Buick. “For pro-slavery groups, she was Greek and descended from the Ptolemies. That’s the only way to explain her greatness: that she was racially white.
Karen Lemmey, curator of sculpture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, told Peabody that for Lewis, basing her depiction on research was a savvy way to avoid the “debate” about Cleopatra’s race. “Especially in the 19th century, where you have this kind of imagination and re-imagining, and fantasy of Egypt and Cleopatra, it’s important that [Lewis] offers that anchor in the historical record,” says Lemmey.
For Lemmey, Lewis’ rendering of the legendary queen offers clues to how the sculptor perceived his own place in the world.
Depicting Cleopatra moments after her death, “Lewis wanted to show Cleopatra holding all the cards, claiming her final chapter, writing her story,” says Lemmey. “It’s especially extraordinary when you consider that it’s a woman sculptor from the end of the 19th century, who herself completely broke with convention. She’s single, she’s successful. And, she, too, is so in control of her career.
Lewis spent four years sculpting The Death of Cleopatra, and much of his material wealth to acquire the marble and ultimately ship the finished sculpture from Rome to Philadelphia for display and potential sale at the United States Centennial Exposition. Although the piece was a hot topic of conversation, it did not sell, and Lewis, whose fortunes in the United States seemed to have faded, left it behind when she returned to Europe, where she continued to support himself as an artist for another three decades. Upon her death, she left her estate of approximately 60,000 pounds to the Catholic Church. And no one knows much more about her than that.
For Buick, the fact that so little is known about the intimate details of Lewis’s life is part of what makes her such a fascinating subject. “She was complicated and her life was complicated,” she tells Peabody. “As art historians and as writers, we follow narrative forms that I think don’t do our subject justice. We try to end on a high note or on a low note and I chose to end elsewhere. She remains unknowable. And that’s not a bad thing.
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