Cleopatra’s Iconoclastic Sculptor Was Her Own Kind of Queen | At the Smithsonian


One hundred and fifteen years after her death, pioneering Black and Native American sculptor Edmonia Lewis – the first black American to achieve international recognition in this artistic discipline – is having a moment. In January, the United States Postal Service honored her with a Forever Stamp. And in June, Lewis finally received her diploma from Oberlin College, more than a century and a half after she was forced to leave without a degree.

The circumstances of their early departure were unfair. Lewis was accused (and acquitted) of poisoning two of her white roommates who were caught sledding with two men, despite Oberlin’s ban on unsupervised co-ed socializing, and defended herself by claiming Lewis gave them the aphrodisiac slipped Spanish flight.

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Oberlin was not convinced, but the school police officer eventually took Lewis into custody to protect her from further harm after a group of men kidnapped, stripped, and beat her. The attackers may have been incited to commit these crimes by a series of inflammatory articles in Cleveland Simple trader. The paper had long claimed that Oberlin’s mixed student population — and particularly its willingness to accept black students at a time when 90 percent of the United States’ black population was enslaved — were disasters in the making, and sought stories to prove them his case.

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After she recovered from her injuries and was cleared of the poisoning allegations, Lewis was eventually asked to leave after a professor claimed with no evidence that she stole some painting supplies.

Lewis biographer Kirsten Buick spoke side door host Lizzie Peabody for the 2019 episode Finding Cleopatra, a Season 4 classic presented by the National Portrait Gallery, home of a beautiful c. 1870 photo by Henry Rocher, encourages listeners to revisit. (They hosted the episode, with a new introduction from the museum director and portraits Podcast host Kim Sajet on the portraits feed this month.)

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One of Lewis’ signature pieces, The Death of Cleopatra, went out of sight for about a century before curator and historian Marilyn Richardson tracked it down in storage in a mall in suburban Chicago Saloon in 1988 — after it was acquired by “a member of the Saloon underworld” who may have had it intended as a memorial to his beloved horse Cleopatra – before being displayed on a golf course, outside a torpedo factory and finally in a storage room amidst chintzy holiday decorations. Fortunately, the artwork is now in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The Death of Cleopatra, Edmonia Lewis, 1876

Edmonia Lewis portrayed Cleopatra in her royal attire in majestic repose on a throne in the moment after her death.

VSV, Gift of the Historical Society of Forest Park, Illinois

Cleopatra was a common subject in portraiture in the 19th century. But she was also a great subject for artistic interpretation because nobody knew what the ancient queen who died in 30 BC looked like. died.

Lewis’ decision to model Cleopatra with distinctly African features was supported by her own research – she went to the Vatican and examined coins minted with the Egyptian ruler’s profile while the queen was still alive – but in her time should still be interpreted as a political act.

“For abolitionists, Cleopatra was a symbol of what black Africans could do when left to their own devices,” Buick explains. “To slavery groups she was Greek and descended from the Ptolemies. The only way to explain her size was that she was racially white.”

Karen Lemmey, curator of sculpture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, tells Peabody that Lewis was a clever way of sidestepping the “debate” about Cleopatra’s race by grounding her portrayal in research. “Especially in the 19th century, where there’s this kind of imagining and re-imagining and imagining Egypt and Cleopatra, that’s important [Lewis] provides that anchor back into the historical record,” says Lemmey.

For Lemmey, Lewis’ portrayal of the legendary queen offers clues as to how the sculptress perceived her own place in the world.

“Lewis wanted to show Cleopatra shortly after her death, holding all the cards, claiming her final chapter and writing her story,” says Lemmey. “It’s particularly extraordinary when you consider that this was made by a sculptor in the late 19th century who broke with convention completely herself. She is unmarried, she is successful. And she, too, is so in control of her career.”

Lewis spent four years sculpting The Death of Cleopatra, and much of their worldly wealth to purchase the marble and eventually ship the completed sculpture from Rome to Philadelphia for display at the United States Centennial Exhibition, and possibly for sale. Although the piece was a hot topic of conversation, it didn’t sell, and Lewis, whose fortunes seemed to have dwindled in the States, abandoned it when she returned to Europe, where she supported herself as an artist for another three decades. When she died, she bequeathed her fortune of around £60,000 to the Catholic Church. And nobody knows much more about her than that.

For Buick, the fact that so little is known about the intimate details of Lewis’ life is part of what makes it such a compelling subject. “She was complicated and her life was complicated,” she tells Peabody. “As art historians and writers, we follow narrative forms that, in my opinion, do not do justice to our subject. We try to end on a high or low note and I chose to end somewhere else. She remains unrecognizable. And that’s not bad.”

Elsewhere in the Smithsonian podosphere

“Did flesh make us human?” asks the latest episode of side door, guest moderated by producer James Morrison. The theory that eating high-calorie, high-nutrient meat was a major accelerator in the evolution of the early human brain some two million years ago has long been conventional wisdom. But in 2020, Briana Pobiner, a paleoanthropologist with the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, and George Washington University paleoanthropologist Andrew Barr discovered that the truth about how our brains grew up is more complex.

airspace explores the problem of catching zzzzzzs in zero-g — well, microgravity — and experiencing multiple sunrises and sunsets per “night” in her episode How Do You Sleep? Astronaut Mike Massimino, a veteran of the 2002 and 2009 space shuttle missions, both of which serviced the Hubble Space Telescope, tells presenters Emily Martin, Nick Partridge and Matt Shindell, “The space shuttle was kind of like a slumber party.” Massimino and his crewmates all used sleeping bags and kept the same wake times. Crew shifts vary aboard the International Space Station, and accommodations are slightly more comfortable.

Next month ARTiculated: Dispatches from the Archives of American Art, Hosts Reggie Reid and Sabine Lipten welcome Brooklyn-based painter Maia Cruz Palileo, who delves into a 2011 oral history of Kay WalkingStick, a Cherokee painter whose oeuvre explores female sexuality, human and human interdependence explored nature and indigenous heritage. In the episode Gut and Heart: Painting with Kay WalkingStick, Palileo is left with some unanswered questions. So Palileo calls WalkingStick, now 87, who shares some advice from her mother and grapples with the question of her own legacy.



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