Testament to Bravery

August 5, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The work of nearly 7,000 artists from all over America has found a home here at Washington’s National Museum of American Art. But none has had a longer or more perilous journey than this two-ton sculpture, ‘The Death of Cleopatra,’ by Edmonia Lewis. Also, perhaps few of the artists whose work has ended up here has had a more difficult and ultimately more mysterious existence.

This is Edmonia Lewis: Born in the middle of the 19th century, part Chippewa Indian, part African-American, and an orphan. Little is known about this woman who as a child roamed the woods with the Chippewas. Accounts tell of a successful brother who insisted she got to college.

He supported her at Oberlin College in Ohio, a major abolitionist center at the time. There her talent for drawing emerged. But it was later in Boston that her desire to become a sculptor took hold. From Boston she journeyed to Rome, home to many expatriate American artists, including several women.

It was while in Rome that she created ‘Cleopatra.’ In 1876 and ’78, Cleopatra was shown to some acclaim in the United States. Then after taking it from Philadelphia to Chicago, Lewis had to put it in storage because she couldn’t afford to take it back to Rome. Museum curator George Gurney told us what happened to the statue.

GEORGE GURNEY, Curator: My supposition is that eventually the storage people couldn’t afford to keep it so they sold it. It then turned up in a saloon on Clark Street in 1892, it was reported to be there. But soon thereafter, it would appear that the owner of a race track out in Forest Park outside of Chicago bought it as a monument to his favorite horse, Cleopatra, and placed it on top of her grave.

And it stayed at the race track for–till the race track closed, and then the race track, itself, became a golf course and eventually in World War II, it became a munitions factory. In 1972, the munitions factory was made way for a bulk U.S. mail service facility. At that time, it seems that the statue was moved, probably to a salvage yard, and probably sometime in the 80’s a fire inspector found the statute in the salvage yard.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Meanwhile, the statute deteriorated due to weather and careless handling and Edmonia Lewis, herself, slipped into oblivion. But in some circles, her work was quietly cherished.

In Chicago, the local Historical Society contacted the National Museum of American Art in Washington which had acquired several other Lewis works that had been in the hands of private collectors. They acquired the badly damaged Cleopatra and restored it. We asked University of Maryland artist David Driskell about Cleopatra and what made the work different from that of Lewis’s peers.

DAVID DRISKELL, Art Historian: Well, I think she tried very hard to infuse elements of her ethnicity in her work. And this was not always the case. She was obviously the first African-American, period, man, woman, to pursue sculpture in such great depths, and so it is here that we see her pulling in elements of, the Egyptian which she really felt was African. She affirmed that in many ways, uh, even though she romanticized it.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How do we see the romanticism of it?

DAVID DRISKELL: She tried, I think, to create some of her own personal personality, let’s say, in the work. If you look at the portrait of Edmonia, you see clothing lavishly placed all over her body, very much like she’s placed the clothing over Cleopatra’s body.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What about the pose, itself?

DAVID DRISKELL: Well, the pose I think she’s trying to capture something that she didn’t believe anybody else had captured in the dying moment, the death moment, and that’s what she was attempting to do, and yet at the same time, I think she was trying to show how the personality of Cleopatra was so strong that she would triumph even in death. She would command attention even in death.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Another of Lewis’s Rome works was ‘Cupid,’ a favorite of the other women artists working in Rome at the time. Some of the American expatriates welcomed Lewis into their tight-knit circle.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How extraordinary was it for these women to be involved in this kind of art?

DAVID DRISKELL: Well, it was very, very extraordinary in the sense that also that they were a mixed group in the sense that their artistry was not confined to sculpture or to painting. You had actresses as a part of that group. Charlotte Cushman, for example, was a friend of theirs. It’s–Charlotte of course talks about the wealthy commissions, and that Edmonia got in those days, so it was a very unusual situation where women could actually prevail, so to speak, in Europe, where they couldn’t here.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And I guess for an African-American woman that was even more important?

DAVID DRISKELL: Definitely. She was accepted there. And obviously she wouldn’t have been accepted here in America the way she was in Rome.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: She also did a lot of work that was strictly about Native Americans. Tell us a little bit about, uh, this one in here.

DAVID DRISKELL: Well, ‘The Arrow Maker’ is actually taken from the Native American side, and it shows a father and his daughter, and of course, he’s teaching her the trade of making the arrows, which is of course a part of the ethnic background that she fits into in the sense of the Native American side, and, uh, here she is trying of course to reflect on her own kindred spirit there.

But she also moved into other subjects pertaining to the African-American theme when she created works like ‘Forever Free,’ in which she celebrates the emancipation of slaves.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Dr. Driskell explained that the abolitionists at Oberlin influenced Lewis’s themes. But he also suggested that Lewis’s work was infused by a near tragic incident that almost cost her life. She became the victim of a vicious charge–believed to have been provoked by strong anti-black sentiment in the town of Oberlin.

DAVID DRISKELL: Well, she was accused of trying to poison her roommate, and of course, it gets to be a rather confused story, and it was proven that she did not. And on the basis of that, she was treated rather severely.

She was beaten in the city of Oberlin, in the town of Oberlin, attacked, and of course, obviously, much of it was due to feelings about racism and what have you, and it left immense scars on her, even when she left the town of Oberlin and went to Boston.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But Lewis survived, and now, thanks in part to the discovery of Cleopatra, so will her legacy.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What is the thing that you think we should think about the most when we think about Edmonia Lewis and her legacy?

DAVID DRISKELL: Well, I think here was the bravery, the courageous person who did not let race, did not let gender, or anything like that stand in her way. And she was able to pursue her goals, her objectives without all of the obstacles that one normally associates with the period.

I mean, we’re talking about somebody who’s just out of the period of slavery, and certainly who would not have had the patronage that some white Americans would have. So she pursued her goals and insisted upon being a part of the period and a part of that movement, and she was. I mean, she fits now brightly into history with the rediscovery of Cleopatra.