The achievements and talents of Mary Edmonia Lewis are more than enough to set her place clearly in art history. Yet, the tendency of this discipline to favour the white male has meant many artists, like Lewis, who don’t fit these criteria are lesser known and lesser celebrated.
Lewis was born in 1844 in New York. Her father was Afro-Haitian while her mother was of both African and Ojibwa (Native American) descent. By the age of nine, she and her brother were orphaned. As a result, she moved south, where she made small tourist souvenirs with her aunts. Later, she pursued an education at Oberlin College in Boston which professed its inclusivity as the first college to allow minority and female students.
Despite boasting inclusivity, Lewis was subject to the systemic racism that permeated the USA – something that is still very present to this day. While at Oberlin she was involved in several scandals. Firstly, she was accused of poisoning two female classmates with the aphrodisiac ‘Spanish Fly’. Following these accusations, she was abducted by a mob of white vigilantes and brutally beaten. Fortunately, she survived and was carried to her trial in the arms of her friends, where lawyer John Mercer Langston successfully acquitted her. However, shortly after returning, she was accused of stealing art supplies and forced to leave the college, unable to graduate.
It was from here that she pursued her career as a sculptor. A bold and courageous move in a profession dominated by men. She moved to progressive Boston, which had a stronghold of abolitionists fighting for the emancipation of slaves and full citizenship for free and enslaved African Americans. Many of these abolitionists became Lewis’s patrons, often commissioning her to create neoclassical portrait busts. In Boston, she underwent some training with sculptor Edward Brackett. However, throughout her career, she was largely self-taught, unable to afford the life drawing her counterparts attended. Instead, her talent for naturalism with the chisel shone through.
After sculpting a bust Robert Gould Shaw – a white colonel who died leading the first regiment composed of all African-American soldiers in the Civil War – Lewis generated enough income to travel to Rome. In Rome, Lewis seemed less bound by the wants of her patrons and more able to express her own compositional interest. An example of this is Forever Free which unbeknown to Samuel Sewell, Lewis sent to his door hoping he would find a buyer.
In Forever Free a male figure stands strongly in contrapposto position, his left arm raised having broken away from the chains that once enslaved him. His other hand is pressed on a kneeling female’s shoulder. The position of the two figures is key to the prospect of freedom that came with the recent Emancipation Proclamation; declaring slaves free during the civil war. They are composed as a 19th century family unit, a basic freedom that had been denied to slaves. While the marble sculpture is neoclassical in appearance, by presenting a highly contemporary subject that relates directly to the politics and society of her time, Lewis’s work almost seems reflective of the Realism which was emerging in Paris.
Acting on the brink of Modernism is arguably most evident in Death of Cleopatra. This sculpture marked the pinnacle of Lewis’s success as an internationally reclaimed artist after she submitted it for the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The subject of the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra, was common with 19th century artists and sculptors. However, the moment that Lewis depicts her was far less so. In her throne Cleopatra lays lifeless, she has allowed an asp to poison her after losing her crown. Lips parted and limbs limp, Lewis presents her as far from idealised.
While some praised this courageous and unconventional depiction, many others found it grotesque. The Daily Evening Telegraph, for example, branded it as a “not a very agreeable work, for the Egyptian Queen is not handsome”. Furthermore, in disgust, art critic William J. Clark Jr. went as far to “question whether a statue of the ghastly characteristics of this one does not overstep the bounds of legitimate art”.
But could we not argue that often the most important and remembered art in history, is the art that oversteps these boundaries paving a way for the future? In fact, the abusive comments Lewis received about Death of Cleopatra reminiscent of those that criticized Edouard Manet’s Olympia on comparison to Alexandre Cabanel’s neoclassical The Birth of Venus. So why is it that the story of these two male artists has been told and taught time and time again, while Lewis’s work seems to have been almost forgotten from art history.
With the rise of the great Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, it is important to call attention to the racial and sexist injustices that have also manifested in art history. As argued by Kristen Pai Buick, author of Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History’s Black and Indian Subject, what is needed is a “responsive and responsible art history”. An art history that includes minority artists of the past, whose talent, endurance and innovation have since been overshadowed.Recommended3 recommendationsPublished in