Nobody Knows My Name
Child of the Fire
Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History’s Black and Indian Subject
By Kirsten Pai Buick
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010, 297 pp., $24.95, paperback
Reviewed by Jennifer DeVere Brody
Kristen Pai Buick’s ambitious study of the nineteenth-century Afro-Native sculptor Mary Edmonia Lewis is in fact two books in one. On the one hand it is a critique of the discipline of art history for its lack of serious engagement with Lewis’s art and for its facile, obscuring attention to the artist’s biography. On the other, Child of Fire also succeeds as a detailed study of Lewis’s art. Buick takes the title of her book from Ralph Waldo Emerson; while I take the title of this review from James Baldwin who, like Lewis, was an expatriate artist who did his best work on America while living in Europe. In many ways Lewis, like both Emerson and Baldwin, sought to render American democratic ideals in her art. She graduated from the progressive McGrawsville School in upstate New York, attended Oberlin College, and then moved to the abolitionist stronghold of Boston before departing for Rome in the 1860s.
Buick, an art historian, contextualizes Lewis and her sculpture in multiple terms and times. This multidimensional focus—on art history, the sculptures, and representations of Lewis—is appropriate, given the three-dimensionality of her subject’s work. Lewis’s art, like that of the African American poet Phillis Wheatley and numerous other artists of color, was often dismissed as imitative or crude. Comparing the critical response Lewis received with that accorded other early African American artists, from Robert Duncanson to Henry Osawa Tanner and Meta Warwick Fuller, Buick criticizes what she terms the “fantastical assessment” of their works. She deconstructs how art historians kept such work “in the dark” (pun intended) and criticizes Judith Wilson’s groundbreaking essay on Lewis (in Jontyle Theresa Robinson, editor, Bearing Witness: Contemporary Works by African American Women Artists, 1996) for misrepresenting the artist as the black feminist foremother of African American modernist art. In Buick’s reading, Lewis is staunchly and stylistically conservative—an exemplary neoclassical sculptor.
In Child of Fire, Buick demonstrates that art-historical discourse, past and present, has focused on furnishing a genealogy for the artist’s work. Specifically, Buick worries that accidents of birth are read as the truth about artists’ racialized and gendered essence. Buick herself does a fine job of engaging Lewis’s art as art, rather than as prima facie “black” art or “Indian” art. She problematizes the question of identity by providing her readers with the biography of a career rather than of a person or persona—even when that persona was created by Lewis herself, as when she remarked: “I always wanted to make the form of things,” and went on to furnish a maternal genealogy for this desire, stating, “My mother was famous for inventing new patterns for embroidery on moccasins, and perhaps the same thing is coming out in me.” Buick’s choice is at once feminist, strategic, and necessary. Since few letters written in Lewis’s hand exist, what we know about her is circumstantial rather than substantive—and the best information we have about her are her marble sculptures.
“Edmonia Lewis remains an enigma,” says Buick. “[S] o many of her works are lost and so much of her biography at this point is missing.” Yet, this lack of information is not the only reason for Lewis’s obscurity. Buick writes:
There is a double-bind of past and present that keeps Edmonia Lewis in the shadows of historical understanding: during her lifetime, she provided conflicting information about the date and place of her birth; to further complicate matters, we know virtually nothing of her private life; moreover, statements that she made about her parentage are also questionable. Claiming that her father was African American, she may have tailored her ethnic heritage to suit the expectations of her audience. In hindsight, it seems as if Edmonia Lewis handed art history the tools with which to misrepresent her.
Buick argues further,
While biology may explain Lewis’s interest in slaves and in Cleopatra because they were derived from or lived in Africa, or in the fictional Hiawatha because he was Chippewa, I contend that her works formed part of an intricate web of relations—that they were a “cultural achievement”—and that they do not adhere to any concerted agenda on Lewis’s part. Her ideal works were materializations, not illustrations, of a sensibility that was shaped by the ideals of womanhood just as much as her “identity” and the accumulation of her experiences was determined by her status at various times as a woman, as Native, as African, Roman, American, Catholic, and artist.
Lewis is not a fully formed, three-dimensional character in Buick’s fascinating study. We may yearn for more modeling and affect, more moving detail and dimension—but what Buick provides instead are lively close readings of Lewis’s artworks. She makes a case for the centrality of Lewis as a quintessential American artist in terms of her commitment to thoroughly American subjects such as freedom, indigenous peoples, and Civil War heroes, and touches on key tropes such as sentimentalism, neoclassicism, racialization, disappearance, and mimeticism.
Among the book’s strongest chapters is “Longfellow, Lewis and the Cultural Work of Hiawatha,” which, in addition to analyzing the sculptures Lewis based on the poem, includes Buick’s readings of two exhibitions of this work. This chapter adds to the growing archive on Afro-Native subjects in Tiya Miles and Sharon Holland’s study, Crossing Waters, Crossing Worlds: The African Diaspora in Indian County (2006).
In 1863, Lewis watched Colonel Robert Gould Shaw march with the all-black 54th Massachusetts regiment as they journeyed south to Fort Wagner. She created a bust of the young colonel and manufactured 100 copies, which she sold to finance a trip to the Continent in 1865. In removing herself to Rome, Lewis became “ec-centric,” in the root sense of the term—outside the circle of the post-Confederate, newly United States. Lewis had kept company with the likes of the actress Charlotte Cushman, the formerly enslaved statesman Frederick Douglass, the lawyer John Mercer Langston, the sculptor William Wetmore Story, and the abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Lydia Maria Child—who once remarked that Lewis’s dedication to her artistic work was so great that she could have “cut through the Alps with a penknife.” In Rome, she became a tangential if often-mentioned member of a community of women-identified-women—whom Henry James disparagingly branded the “white marmorean [marble] flock.” This coterie, which included Lewis’s fellow American female sculptors Anne Whitney and Harriet Hosmer, had moved to Rome seeking the relative freedoms the city offered at the time. It also provided crucial access both to the prized Carrara marble and to skilled carvers—although Lewis, unlike most of her colleagues, did her own carving, to stave off those who might say she was incapable of being a sculptor because of her race and gender.
Lewis’s body repeatedly was conscripted to perform as a racialized spectacle. In other words, in the context of the nineteenth-century cult of personality and the era’s scientific racism, which read anatomy as destiny, Lewis’s image served as supplement, visual cue, and authenticating document. Buick includes portraits of Lewis, such as the handsome studio photograph that graces the book cover, showing how they border on the ethnographic. She does not take up the issue of Lewis’s purported “queerness,” which other writers have discussed especially in relation to Lewis’s most revered work, “The Death of Cleopatra,” a version of which is at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC (along with her “Hagar” and a number of maquettes and smaller works), but she does see race as performative and shifting. (For a discussion of “Cleopatra,” and Edmonia Lewis as queer, see Scott Trafton, Egyptland: Race and Nineteenth-Century American Egyptomania ; Francesca Royster, Becoming Cleopatra: The Shifting Image of an Icon ; and Charmaine Nelson, The Color of Stone ). Although Buick is rightly critical of psychobiography—throughout she seeks to avoid the bleed between biography and axiomatic forms of biological essentialism—some discussion of how new concepts in the history of sexuality have changed our understanding of Lewis’s life would have been of interest.
Buick chooses not to provide a full rendering of Lewis’s cosmopolitanism and does not focus on her long residence in Rome. Throughout the last decades of the nineteenth century, Lewis returned periodically to the United States to exhibit her work in major venues such as the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 and the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893. Frederick Douglass records one of the last sightings of Lewis in his diary. He and his second wife visited Rome in the late 1880s and, with Lewis and her female companion, traveled to Naples for a tour of Pompeii. He noted that Lewis had been speaking Italian so long that her English was “accented.” A Catholic Church bulletin dated 1911 contains what most believe is the last notice of her. It says simply that she is “getting on in years but still with us.” Thanks to Buick’s smart and timely study, Lewis’s art and career are with us, as we continue to give them the scrutiny they deserve.
Of course, doing full justice to the subject of Edmonia Lewis may be beyond the knowledge of any single scholar, as studying her “differences” and the ways in which she was cast as anomalous requires one to search a myriad of shifting databases and intervene in the interstices of archives. Speaking generally, however, this book goes a long way toward providing a model of responsive, responsible art history.
Jennifer DeVere Brody is professor of African and African American Studies and Theater Studies at Duke University. She is the author of Impossible Purities: Blackness, Femininity and Victorian Culture (1998) and Punctuation: Art, Politics and Play (2008).