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Edmonia Lewis (1844 - 1907)


Cowan's Auctions

October 13, 2007
Cincinnati, OH, US

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Living in Rome, Lewis was certainly familiar with these mythological and Christian associations, as well as the fact that a bust of Proserpine (ca 1844) by America's best-known sculptor, Hiram Powers (1805-1873), was one of his most reproduced sculptures. Like Lewis, Powers had strong links to Ohio; he had lived in Cincinnati, 1818-1834, and like her, he expatriated to Italy but settled in Florence. In fact, Lewis credited Powers and sculptor Harriet Hosmer for helping her when she went abroad (Pacific Appeal, Aug. 16, 1873). Lewis likely observed Bernini's Rape of Prosperine (1621-1622) at the Galleria Borghese, and she might have been familiar with Giovanni Maria Benzeni's Zephyr Dancing with Flora (1870). Other sculptural sources for this statue in Europe were the marbles, the Farnese Flora (rediscovered ca 1532), a figure in the Versailles garden (1661-1756), also bearing a floral diadem and garland, and Odoardo Fantacchiotti's Flora (1854), as well as terracottas of Flora, including the figural couple, Zephyrus and Flora (1799), and a bust of the goddess by Bartolomeo Cavaceppi (1770). Previously Lewis had drawn and sculpted other mythological subjects, including Urania (1862; muse of astronomy and astrology), Hygeia (1871-72; goddess of health), and Poor Cupid (modeled 1872, carved 1876). Lewis's vision of this bride is unique. It differs from all of these in that the entire figure, save the hands, hair, and feet, is swathed in diaphanous draperies. This fact, coupled with her relaxed posture, the solidity of the form with arms pressed close to the chest and side, the closed lips, and the look of pensive contemplation on the woman's face as she cocks her head to her left slightly--as well as the almost defensive or shielding gesture of the right arm upraised across her body--suggests a sense of self-containment and isolation. There is little negative space--only a small opening where the garland arcs around the right leg. It is as though this tightly swaddled body is just awakening to the possibilities of spring and a new relationship. Tension is evident in the contrast between the beautifully carved folds of cloth and sensuous curves of the youth's firm body, and the white marble that evokes chastity, morality, and purity in sentiment. It is also apparent in the clinging fabric that simultaneously hides the flesh and retains a sense of mystery, and yet reveals and, indeed, accentuates the body and face. Veiled faces and busts were popular subjects with 19th-century Italian sculptors who used the motifs to demonstrate tour-de-force carving. The quality of material here is not of the highest caliber often seen in the work of Powers, who carefully chose pure, sparkling blocks of Carrara marble and highly polished the sculptured surfaces so that flesh would appear meltingly soft or velvety. By contrast, this piece is more porous and chalky, appearing more ethereal and ghostlike in its shrouds than real. The surface has been dulled and granulated by rain and frost, and now softly glows. But the veining of the stone in this instance heightens the somber, even melancholy, mood of the piece, with one gray streak trickling from the left eye down to the jaw like a tear. This detail strengthens associations with Proserpine, who was forcefully abducted and made to be Pluto's wife. Lewis had previously depicted women in subordinate positions with men, as in the kneeling female and standing male in Forever Free, and the seated daughter and her father in The Old Arrow Maker. But this bride is not shown with a man nor is she submissive. While one might argue that she demonstrates Victorian qualities of the Cult of True Womanhood in her apparent piety and virtue, she is neither domestic nor submissive. (It is tempting to read the work as somewhat autobiographical, with allusions to the unconventional life that Lewis led, her heritage of slavery, and her independence as she forged a new identity and life in a foreign land, only to return to her native country several times, in 1871, 1873, 1876, and 1878.) Although perhaps trapped by her situation and almost smothered by her wedding attire, this bride is not passive. She does not kneel or sit, but stands erect and stoically, ready to face what is before her, as an immortal being. Sources Ambrosini, Lynne D. and Rebecca A.G. Posage. Hiram Powers: Genius in Marble. Cincinnati, OH: Taft Museum of Art, 2007. Bearden, Romare and Harry Henderson. A History of African-American Artists From 1792 to the Present. New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1993. Blodgett, Geoffrey. "John Mercer Langston and the Case of Edmonia Lewis: Oberlin, 1862" in Journal of Negro History, Vol. 53 (July, 1968): 201-218. Buick, Kirsten P. "The Ideal Works of Edmonia Lewis: Invoking and Inverting Autobiography" in American Art, Vol. 9. (Summer 1995): 5-19. Bullard, Laura Curtis. "Edmonia Lewis," Revolution, Vol. 7 (April 20, 1871): 8. Burgard, Timothy Anglin. "Edmonia Lewis and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Images and Identities" in American Art Review, Vol. 7, no. 1 (1995): 114-117. Commire, Anne, editor. Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Waterford, CT: Yorkin Publications, 1999-2000. James, Henry. William Wetmore Story and His Friends; From Letters, Diaries, and Recollections. Edinburgh and London: W. Blackwood and Sons, 1903. Hartigan, Lynda Roscoe. "Mary Edmonia 'Wildfire' Lewis." in Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Ed. Darlene Clark Hine et al. 2 vols. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993. Hartigan, Lynda Roscoe. Sharing Traditions: Five Black Artists In Nineteenth-Century America: From the Collections of the National Museum of American Art. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985. Lewis, Jo Ann. "An Afterlife for 'Cleopatra'" in The Washington Post (June 10, 1996): B1. Nelson, Charmaine. The Color of Stone: Sculpting the Black Female Subject in Nineteenth-Century America. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2007. Richardson, Marilyn. "Edmonia Lewis" in Harvard Magazine, Vol. 88 (March-April 1986): 40-41. Sterling, Dorothy, ed. We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997, c1984. Wolfe, Rinna Evelyn. Edmonia Lewis: Wildfire in Marble. Berkeley, CA: Muse Wood Press, 1998. Wreford, Henry. "A Negro Sculptress," The Athenæum, Vol. 39 (March 3, 1866). Websites: Edmonia Lewis: First Internationally Acclaimed African American Sculptor - website dedicated to her, with bio-chronology, links to photographs of her works, and more Cleopatra: Lost and Found - virtual tour of Edmonia Lewis' works at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Testmanent to Bravery - PBS transcript of interviewer Charlayne Hunter-Gault, with museum curator George Gurney and art historian David Driskell, on the art and legacy of Edmonia Lewis, August 5, 1996. Edmonia Lewis - African-Americans in the Visual Arts: a Historical Perspective, on Long Island University website This essay is from Theresa Leininger-Miller, Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Cincinnati, specializing in 19th-20th c. art. Author of New Negro Artists in Paris: African American Painters and Sculptors in the City of Light, 1922-1934 (Rutgers, 2001) and many essays, she is currently working on two monographs, concerning sculptor Augusta Savage (1892-1962) and daguerreotypist J.P. Ball (1825-1904).

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Cowan's Auctions
October 13, 2007, 10:00 AM EST

Cincinnati, OH, US