In the 1980s a fire inspector in Chicago found a 2,000 pound statue of a woman in a salvage yard. Who it represented, where it came from and who had made it, were a mystery, but he knew it was something precious. Somehow or other the Chicago Historical Society was notified and someone there, I can only imagine who, recognized it. “The Death of Cleopatra” had received great acclaim a century earlier when it was shown at the International Exposition celebrating the Centennial in Philadelphia (1876), and again at the Interstate Industrial Exposition in Chicago. It was thought to be the artist’s masterpiece.
How did the world lose a masterpiece? Apparently, Cleopatra had been put into storage after its Chicago appearance. Its creator hadn’t the money to take it back to Europe with her. Years later it was sold to a saloon on Clark Street, and not long after that to the owner of a Forest Park race track who bought it as a monument to his favorite horse, named Cleopatra of course, and placed it on top of her grave. The race track eventually closed and became successively a golf course, a World War II munitions factory, and finally a U.S. mail service facility. That was when Cleopatra was shipped off to the salvage yard. Today the mammoth marble statue can be found at the Smithsonian.
Edmonia Lewis, Cleopatra’s creator, was the daughter of an Ojibway woman and a Haitian father.
“My mother,” she told an interviewer in 1866 “was a wild Indian, and was born in Albany (New York), of copper colour, and with straight black hair. There she made and sold moccasins. My father, who was a negro, and a gentleman’s servant, saw her and married her…. Mother often left her home, and wandered with her people, whose habits she could not forget, and thus we her children were brought up in the same wild manner. Until I was twelve years old I led this wandering life, fishing and swimming,” she added with great glee, “and making moccasins.”
Her parents died when she was very young and she was raised mostly by her mother’s family. Her name in those years was Wild Fire. She had an older brother who went to California to find gold and made enough money to pay for her schooling, primarily at Oberlin College, a radical center of equality and abolitionism and one of the few schools where a dark skinned-woman had any chance of getting an education. Even there, race became a problem when she was accused of poisoning two white friends (with Spanish Fly, no less!), and harassed and badly beat up by some self-styled vigilantes. Exonerated by a judicial hearing, she went to Boston where she began to sculpt in earnest.
It was 1863 and the Emancipation Proclamation had just been signed.
It was in Boston that she began to acquire influential friends and sponsors for her work, and not long after she headed for Rome where a number of American women artists were already busily creating art in the neoclassical style of the day: Harriet Hosmer, Emma Stebbins, Anne Whitney, and other lesser knowns, as well as Charlotte Cushman, the actress. Henry James was to call them a “strange sisterhood” and “white marmorean flock.’ (I had to look up marmorean, and so I assume will others—it has to do with marble.) American tourists to Rome visited their studios. Many of the most prominent Americans of the day commissioned art works by them.
It’s instructive to read descriptions of the first African-American and Native American woman of her day to succeed and achieve prominence as an artist. She fascinated white Americans.
Miss Edmonia Lewis has a very engaging appearance and manners. Her eyes and the upper part of her face are fine; the crisp hair and thick lips, on the other hand, bespeak her negro paternity. Naive in manner, happy and cheerful and all unconscious of difficulty, because obeying a great impulse, she prattles like a child and with much simplicity and spirit pours forth all her aspirations. (Henry Wreford)
Whether the little lady has genius or not, she certainly is largely endowed with one element of success; for her perseverance is unconquerable. What she undertakes to do that she will do, though she has to cut through the heart of mountains with a pen knife . (Lydia Maria Child)
Her use of the description “little” may be forgivable: Edmonia was only 21 and her passport gave her height as four feet.
From Edmonia, herself:
I was practically driven to Rome in order to obtain the opportunities for art culture, and to find a social atmosphere where I was not constantly reminded of my color. The land of liberty had not room for a colored sculptor.
I kept up my pluck with a bible and brandy bottle beside my bed, so that if one gave out she might take to the other.
The Civil War ended and the slaves were freed.
Edmonia Lewis created the first emancipation statue by an African-American, “The Freedwoman and Her Child.” She followed that with another statue with a similar theme, “Forever Free.” (now at Howard University) Still another important work was based on Longfellow’s famous poem “Hiawatha”: The Old Arrow-Maker and His Daughter, it was also entitled “The Wooing of Hiawatha.” It portrays the listeners in the scene in the poem where Hiawatha asks for the hand of his beloved. It’s now in the Smithsonian. She was pleased at the poet’s positive portrait of the Native American, especially since Hiawatha was Ojibway like her mother.
She made busts of well-knowns like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, Horace Greeley, John Brown and Senator Charles Sumner, as well as sculpture depicting women like the biblical Hagar and Minnehaha.
While her style was neoclassical, like that of many other American artists of the time, she is credited with bringing some naturalism to her work. At any rate, she was successful into the 1890s. Her gradual disappearance from the art scene had largely to do with the demise of the neoclassical and, possibly, with the reactionary period that followed Reconstruction. For years, no one knew what happened to her. Like her Cleopatra, she vanished from public view. Recently, an American scholar found that her last residence in London where she died in 1907.
But obscurity doesn’t mean much in the long view where Edmonia Lewis is concerned. Her accomplishments were extraordinary and her art continues to inspire other artists, especially African-American and Native American women.