Friday, May 10, 2013

Edmonia Lewis' Object at Hand

"This [sculpture of Cleopatra] was not a beautiful work, but it was a very original and very striking one . . . [Cleopatra] is seated in a chair; the poison of the asp has done its work and the Queen is dead. The effects of death are represented with such skill as to be absolutely repellant — and it is a question whether a statue of the ghastly characteristics of this one does not overstep the bounds of legitimate art."

So wrote artist William J. Clark jr. in Great American Sculptures (1878) about one of the artworks on display at the Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia. The person who created it, Edmonia Lewis, was the first professional African-American and Native American sculptor. It is symptomatic of her difficult life and neglected career that her most important piece, The Death of Cleopatra, which caused such a stir in Philadelphia 120 years ago, soon dropped out of sight and was not rediscovered until the late 1970s. Miraculously rescued from oblivion, it was recently conserved and has been placed on view at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art (NMAA). "Lost and Found: Edmonia Lewis' Cleopatra" presents the long-missing masterwork, along with other Lewis sculptures in the NMAA collection, through January 5, 1997.

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