Judgements in stone: The two contrasting styles of Edmonia Lewis, the first African American woman sculptor.

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Author: Mary Beard
Date: Sept. 17, 2021
From: TLS. Times Literary Supplement(Issue 6181)
Publisher: NI Syndication Limited
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,474 words
Lexile Measure: 1400L

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THE STORY OF THE HUGE MARBLE STATUE of "The Death of Cleopatra" by Edmonia Lewis--the first professional African American woman sculptor--is one of the most curious in the history of modern art. Created in Rome in the early 1870s, it was shown at the Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, where it sparked controversy, as well as admiration, for its unflinching portrayal of Cleopatra's death by snake venom. As one sceptical contemporary critic observed, "It is a question whether a statue of the ghastly characteristics of this one does not overstep the bounds of legitimate art". After showing it again in Chicago, Lewis put the statue into store (it was too big and heavy to transport easily back to Italy). But by the 1890s it had somehow emerged to be used as part of the decoration of a Chicago saloon, before being repurposed again to mark the grave of a famous local racehorse (named, of course, Cleopatra). Decades later, when a US postal depot was built over the site of the grave, the statue ended up in a scrapyard, until it was eventually recognized and, in the 1980s, transferred to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC.

Lewis herself had almost as peripatetic a career as her statue of Cleopatra, combining celebrity, tragedy and some appalling racism. She was born in 1844 in a free town in upstate New York and, as a young woman, studied for a while at Oberlin College, until in 1862 she was accused of poisoning two white students and was viciously beaten up by local vigilantes. The legal case against Lewis was dropped for lack of evidence, but after a second unsuccessful charge (this time of stealing art materials), she was expelled before graduating; within a few years she left America permanently, moving to Rome, on the profits she had made from the sale of some early work. There, in the late 1860s, she set up a successful sculpture studio, attracting a degree of fame and some notable visitors (including Frederick Douglass), as well as some highbrow prejudice. Henry James was probably not untypical of the time when he remarked that her "colour, picturesquely contrasting with that of her plastic material...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A678018181