Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Role of Race in Edmonia Lewis's Death of Cleopatra

This post is an updated and expanded form of an essay that I wrote in my college Women in Art class! I am excited to share some expanded and edited versions of my essays here (since I did spend plenty of time working on them, and I'd hate for them to rot away in my hard drive forever!)

Mary Edmonia Lewis, known more commonly as Edmonia Lewis, was the first professional sculptor of African and Native American descent in America. She created Neoclassical sculptures deeply embedded with racial themes and symbols. Lewis's most celebrated work is her Death of Cleopatra (shown below). This sculpture was displayed as a part of the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, where Lewis was one of a handful of women showcasing their work. Of these few women, Lewis was the only one who was not white, making her a paramount that paved the way for women artists of color in the art world. The strong, ethnically-aware subject matter of Death of Cleopatra makes its inclusion in the exposition even more profound.

Lewis's 1876 marble statue weighs in at 3,015 pounds, and depicts the famous Egyptian queen Cleopatra in the moments before her death. Much unlike prior depictions of Cleopatra, Lewis shows the queen as disheveled and inelegant, as a reflection of her impending death. It is important to note that during this period of time, there was a commonly accepted belief within and outside of the art world community that non-whites were simply too dumb and animal-like to be capable of creating anything of artistic notice. 

Lewis's large, imposing marble statue rivaled any and all other Neoclassical creations. Her subject matter was chosen with the greatest care: the Egyptian Queen right after she was bitten by the snake. With her breast exposed and her head slumped back, the queen is simultaneously seen as beautiful and approaching death. The exposure of her breast is undoubtedly a reference to her use of her sexuality to control Alexander the Great. By granting a space of such prestige to this piece, and therefore placing it well within the attention of the American public, the Exposition gave Death of Cleopatra ample credentials to combat the current idea of non-white artists. 

Lewis studied the mythology and history surrounding this famous queen, and was able to “juxtapose and embellish their meanings to suit the needs of an Afro-Indian determined to express, through her art, the struggles to endure racism, sexism, and cultural isolation.” The sculpture depicts Cleopatra in a way commonly used to represent white female subjects, especially those of considerable wealth, power, and beauty.

Death of Cleopatra's inclusion in the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition was dually important, as it held a breakthrough not just for women artists in the art world but also for artists of color, not to mention those who fell into both demographics.

Nelson, Charmaine (2007). The Color of Stone: Sculpting the Black Female Subject in Nineteenth-Century America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
Woods Jr., Naurice Frank. "An African Queen at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition 1876: Edmonia Lewis's The Death of Cleopatra." Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism 9, no. 1 (April 2009): 62-82. Art Source, EBSCOhost (accessed May 1, 2016).

Post a Comment