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Celebrating Black History in Art: Edmonia Lewis (1845-1911)

The Death of Cleopatra by Edmonia Lewis

Edmonia Lewis was the first African American and American Indian female sculptor to achieve national recognition from the mainstream art world during an era when minorities and women faced strong prejudices. Lewis’ birthplace is unknown. Her father was a free black man from the West Indies and her mother was a Chippewa Indian. Lewis celebrated her racial identity through her art.

Lewis’ choice of subject matter was African American and American Indian abolitionist heroes and local luminaries. In 1864, Lewis sculpted a bust of Robert Gould Shaw (the colonel who led an all-black regiment to the battle of Fort Wagner during the Civil War) which was widely celebrated and sold 100 plaster copies of the bust. She used the income from the sales and embarked on her dream to study sculpting in Italy.

By 1873, Lewis became the first internationally renowned female sculptor to exhibit in San Francisco and San Jose, where she showcased a bust of President Abraham Lincoln, later purchased by the Friends of San Jose Library where it remains to this day.

Edmonia Lewis

In 1874, Lewis returned to Italy where achieved her greatest triumph, her masterwork—The Death of Cleopatra. The Death of Cleopatra was a portrayal of Cleopatra after she is bitten by her asp. The work never sold because of its portrayal of Cleopatra at weakest moment—an absolute contrast to the atypical portrayals of her strength and beauty. The work was exhibited in the Philadelphia Exposition in 1876 and the Chicago Interstate Exposition in 1878. Over the years, the piece was somehow lost, and later turned up on a grave marker for a racehorse named Cleopatra in 1988. In 1995, the work was finally restored and placed in the Smithsonian National Museum of American Art.

Where and when Edmonia Lewis died is unknown, but her triumphs has inspired generations of minority artists. Lewis broke racial barriers and achieved fame in an era when most Americans claimed Negroes lacked the capacity for intelligence and fine art. A quote from Lewis to Lydia Maria Child (an American abolitionist and women’s rights activist) states “Some praise me because I am a colored girl, and I don’t want that kind of praise. I had rather you would point out my defects, for that will teach me something.”

Clarke Art Consulting encourages you to view the acclaimed sculpture, The Death of Cleopatra, at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C.

Published by Clarke Art Consulting © 2010

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