Edmonia Lewis, The Death of Cleopatra, 1876, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
Today I’m finding it hard to say who or what had the most unusual history – the artist or their art, the subject or the sculpture – and given the fame of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt that’s really saying something. But Edmonia Lewis was a remarkable woman, and, if anything, her history is further shrouded by the mists of time, and by whims of the imagination, than that of her famous subject. So let’s start with the sculpture. Cleopatra is seated on her throne, her left arm hanging down, her right hand resting on her thigh, her head tilted to one side, for all the world as if she has just nodded off. But as we know from the title, carved on the base of the sculpture, this is the sleep of death. Rarely has it been portrayed so calmly.
Intricately carved, you may yet be struggling to focus on some of the details: the sculpture is badly worn, the result of an unconventional history. Cleopatra wears an approximation to the headgear of Egyptian pharaohs, a combination of the nemes – the striped head cloth, with its two lappets hanging down behind the ears (familiar to us today from the mask of Tutankhamun) – with a form of pinnacle, perhaps derived from the hedjet – the white crown of Upper Egypt. The stylised leaf decoration on the back of the throne creates a foil to the crisply-carved folds of the dress, making the figure stand out from its background. The half-length sleeves are caught up twice into bunches, and the dress is gathered at a high waist, so that there is a counterpoint between the freely-hanging, more deeply carved drapery and broader areas where the cloth clings to the underlying anatomy. One breast is defined by fabric and folds, the other revealed. Her right hand, apparently relaxed, still holds the asp that killed her.
The queen wears two necklaces, both beaded, and the lower also has a pendant, possibly representing a bucranium– the skull of an ox – although, given the lack of detail, this is not certain. The full skirt flares out behind her hips, and hangs over the arm of the throne, which is carved along the sides with mock hieroglyphs.
The two heads on the arms of the throne, also wearing the nemes, represent the twin sons of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony. Whether the ring she wears on the fourth finger of her left hand represents her relationship with him, or is merely decorative, is not clear. She wears wonderfully inventive sandals, the large loops revealing her delicately carved toes, the smallest of which is slightly lifted. The skirt of the dress hangs down from her knees, wrapping round her left shin, with the hem to revealing her feet. From there, it trails down to the right, falling over the edge of the sculpture. A rose has dropped onto the foot of the throne, and lies there, resting on the dress, the fallen bloom symbolic of the subject’s death.
On one side, as we have seen, the arm of the throne is covered by drapery. The other is decorated with a leaping griffin holding a leaf in its front paw, and surrounded by other, stylised leaves. From this angle, the tail of the asp can be seen lying across Cleopatra’s right leg.
The Death of Cleopatra was first exhibited at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadephia in 1876, but it had been shipped from Rome. Edmonia Lewis had settled there a decade before, having travelled from Boston via London and Paris. However, it is only the middle of her life that can be documented with any certainty. She was probably born in 1844 in the State of New York, to an Afro-Haitian father and a mother of mixed heritage, African American and Chippewa: as an adult Lewis would claim an affinity with Hiawatha. Both parents had died by the time she was nine, when she was brought up by her maternal aunts. As she said of her own childhood,
Until I was twelve years old I led this wandering life, fishing and swimming … and making moccasins. I was then sent to school for three years… but was declared to be wild – they could do nothing with me.
Apart from this it is hard to pin down her childhood. Like so many artists she became the master of her own history, and like Andy Warhol or Tracey Emin, was arguably her own greatest creation, drawing on different parts of her heritage according to the public she was addressing. She was good at marketing, it would seem, even if not financially secure. Her half-brother had made enough money in the Gold Rush, though, to send her to Oberlin College, which accepted both female and black students. Nevertheless, as part of a tiny minority she was subject to continual racism, and forced to leave after unfounded accusations that she had poisoned two fellow students and stolen from the College itself. She moved to Boston (again, supported financially by her brother), where the sculptor Edward Beckett acted as a mentor and helped her to set up her own studio. Her work was supported by a number of prominent abolitionists and advocates of Native American rights, of whom she modelled portrait medallions in clay and plaster, later carved in marble: one example is illustrated here. Her bust of Colonel Robert Shaw, a white officer who had led a company of African-American infantrymen during the Civil War, was enormously successful. She sold numerous copies, these sales paying for her trip to Europe.
In Rome, she was befriended by American sculptor Harriet Hosman, who, like Lewis, was one of very few women to carve marble. On the whole, sculptors would pay stonemasons to carve their works, having first modelled them in clay or plaster. Figures as eminent as Canova would do this (Picture Of The Day 68) but Lewis could rarely afford to pay anyone, so did most of the carving herself. Nevertheless, the connection with Canova was real: when in Rome, she did as he did – and rented his former studio.
The Death of Cleopatra is said to have taken her four years, but by the time it was completed she couldn’t afford to ship it to the States. She travelled back alone, and sold smaller works to pay for it to be delivered. It was the hit sculpture of the Centennial Exhibition, although not universally popular. Traditionally Cleopatra had been seen as very much alive – decorous, alluring, and tantalising with that oh-so-dangerous asp. But definitely not dead. Curiously, there is a precedent – Artemisia Gentileschi painted Cleopatra post-bite, her lips already blue, but I doubt that Lewis would have known that. No slight on her – nobody really knew who Artemisia Gentileschi was in the 19th Century: they were only just rediscovering Caravaggio.
In this sculpture there is an undoubted sense that Cleopatra, as a strong African woman, had a mastery over her own fate, and Edmonia Lewis, who is also known to have claimed her own biography, was in a position to show her doing so. The material was also ideal: it allowed Lewis to depict a strong African woman, while also giving her license to portray her white – not as white, but carved in white marble – which might have made the image more acceptable to some of the audience, as would the more-or-less fully clad figure. Most artists had portrayed the voluptuous Queen in a more advanced state of undress – including Artemisia, who showed her lying on her bed completely naked more than once, dead and alive. In this case, it really was the fact that she was already dead that some critics didn’t like. One, an artist himself, William J. Clark Jr., thought that “the effects of death are represented with such skill as to be absolutely repellent—and it is a question whether a statue of the ghastly characteristics of this one does not overstep the bounds of legitimate art.” Ironically, this was a form of praise: what Lewis was attempting to do, she had done too well.
Despite its popularity, the sculpture did not sell. Nor did it sell when subsequently exhibited at the Chicago Industrial Interstate Expo, but Lewis could not afford to ship it back to Rome. Somehow it ended up as a feature in a Chicago saloon, until it was bought from there by a shady character named ‘Blind John’ Condon, a racehorse owner and gambler, who used it as the gravestone for a favourite horse – also called Cleopatra – by side of a Chicago race track. The race track became a golf course, then a Navy munitions site, and finally a postal depot. The sculpture was covered with graffiti, until well-meaning boy scouts painted it white. Although rescued in the 1980s, it wasn’t until the 1990s that it ended up at the Smithsonian, where it was cleaned up as much as was possible. However, after decades in the open air, there is no hope of restoring its original finish.
And Edmonia Lewis? She was successful, for a while, and could employ as many as six assistants. But then she disappeared from view for the last two decades of her life. It was only recently that it was discovered that she died in London in 1907 – she had been living in Hammersmith, and was buried in St Mary’s Catholic Cemetery, Kensal Green. She had disappeared from view, and sadly so had many of her sculptures – but there are just enough, in the Smithsonian, and the Met, to keep her name alive.