By Dominique Hunter
Her story reads like a movie script, filled with equal measures of drama, suspense, triumph and mystery. One would be tempted to call it a great fiction but in fact, these were her lived experiences playing themselves out in the most frightful and extraordinary ways imaginable.
Mary Edmonia Lewis (born 1844 in Greenbush, New York) was the first professional African-American and Native-American sculptor to receive international success for works that examined
religious and classical themes.
Orphaned at an early age, Lewis spent the rest of her childhood with her mother’s relatives, a group of Ojibway (Chippewa Indians). Reports claim that she was “raised in the wilds” of upstate New York, running free under the name Wildfire, a name given to her by the same relatives. She would indeed live up to her moniker later in life, bobbing and weaving through critical acclaim and complete obscurity for over a hundred years.
In 1859 Lewis, through the encouragement of her brother, decided to pursue her art education at the Oberlin College in Ohio. But before she could complete her third year at the institution, her college life was violently cut short. She found herself embroiled in a terrible scandal and was falsely accused of attempting to poison two white classmates.
In an attempt to exact their own justice prior to the trial, a group of vigilantes described in reports as a “white mob” kidnapped and proceeded to beat her in an open field, shattering her collarbone and injuring her legs. She appeared in court, supported by crutches, stood trial and was eventually acquitted of all charges. In spite of this, the sensation around the scandal continued to plague her even after the trial, forcing her to abort her studies and leave for Boston, Massachusetts.
Upon her arrival in Boston, Lewis connected with the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. So impressed was he with her work that he arranged for the sculptor Edward A. Brackett to be her mentor. By the early 1860s, her clay and plaster medallions of popular abolitionist leaders had given her some modest commercial success. And it was through the sale of a bust of Robert Gould Shaw that she eventually bought a one-way ticket to Rome.
Once there she became exoticized by her peers for her non-white status and reduced to an “untutored” female with “childlike” qualities, despite her advanced education. Nonetheless, her work continued to receive rave reviews. Lewis prided herself in carving her works by hand, as opposed to employing tradesmen as was the custom in Rome at that time. But like everything else, the winds of fortune eventually shifted and her signature Neoclassical-styled works were no longer considered hot commodities. All of this unfolded at the same time the art hub moved from Rome to Paris, and would’ve without a doubt weighed heavily on her mind.
Sometime during the late 1880s Lewis disappeared from the public eye. Her last known sculpture was carved in 1883. And although she was rarely seen, it was reported that Frederick Douglass met with her in Rome in 1887. Much like her childhood, Lewis’s final years were shrouded in mystery. For quite a long time, there was no definitive date of Lewis’ passing. British records only recently revealed that at some point she relocated from Rome to London, and died from Bright’s disease (chronic and painful inflammation of the kidneys) in Hammersmith Infirmary on September 17, 1907.
The Death of Cleopatra is perhaps Lewis’ most famous work. The impressive marble sculpture, measuring 63 x 31.25 x 46 inches and weighing almost two tons, was created for the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial, and later exhibited at the 1878 Chicago Exposition amid glowing reviews. A hundred years would pass before the sculpture would re-emerge, shedding the cloak of obscurity that had befallen it at its last location before rediscovery, the grave of a racetrack owner’s favorite horse ironically named Cleopatra.
The subject of the sculpture (b. 69 BC), ruled as queen of Egypt from 51 BC until her death in 30 BC, and is perhaps best known for her dramatic suicide. Most historical accounts describe a tragic tale of love lost. Following the defeat of her forces in the Battle of Actium, Cleopatra and her lover Mark Antony both fled to Egypt where she retired to her mausoleum and he left to fight his final battle. During combat, Antony attempted to commit suicide after receiving false news of her death. He would later die by Cleopatra’s side. After burying him, she locked herself in the vault with two female servants and proceeded to take her own life by allegedly allowing herself to be bitten by an asp (also known as the Egyptian cobra). For years, historians have speculated about alternate theories surrounding her death, suggesting that it was a lethal drug cocktail and not the snakebite that killed her.
In her sculptural rendering of Cleopatra, Lewis reimagined the immediate moment after the queen’s death. Unlike most portrayals of this iconic scene, Cleopatra is depicted in her royal garb, posed with authority on her throne, with no trace of discomfort in her expression. In fact, the queen appears to be smiling, if not content. It was uncommon for artists at the time to not portray Cleopatra reclining, and either in despair or undeniably dead.
This distinction made Lewis’ interpretation all the more impactful. In her right hand Cleopatra is firmly gripping a tiny Egyptian cobra, the symbol of divine royalty but also, as many believed, the symbol of her own death. Identical sphinx heads flank her on either side of the throne and are believed to represent the twins she bore with Antony.
While most representations of the Egyptian queen tend to expose her as a foreign, power-hungry seductress, Lewis chose instead to reaffirm her majesty even in death, by bearing her vulnerable yet composed state. In some ways one could understand why she felt so passionately about the queen. There was certainly no shortage of drama and mystery in either woman’s life.
Dominique Hunter is an independent visual artist who recently graduated from the Barbados Community College with a Bachelor of Fine Art (First Class Honours).