Mary Edmonia Lewis

The Death of Cleopatra

Fig.1The Death of Cleopatra, 1875. Marble, 60x43x33 inches. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

Just as the female figure in Lewis’s Forever Freeavoids specific racial features, so does her female figure in The Death of Cleopatra (1875) (Figure 1). Created in the neo-classical style, the figure is slightly larger than life-size. Cleopatra is dressed in a gown cinched with a simple cord. She is collapsed on her throne, her head thrown back and turned to the left, her face twisted into a pained expression. Her throne is detailed with leaves and sphinxes on either side, the base of the chair forms a lion’s claw. Cleopatra’s right arm rests against her torso and thigh; her right hand holds the asp that she has just used to poison herself. Her right foot is pulled towards the throne while her left foot protrudes slightly and her left arm drapes limply at the side of the throne.

There are two aspects that distinguish Lewis’s The Death of Cleopatra from other descriptions of Cleopatra she would have seen or known of. The first of the differences being the setting in which she depicted the dead queen. While many sculptures and painters of the time depicted Cleopatra dying in the company of her servants, Lewis chose to depict Cleopatra as suffering alone. The second, and for this articles purposes more important, is the way Cleopatra’s face was modeled. Lewis decided to model Cleopatra’s facial features from archeological coins from the time of the queens reign “rather than creating an obviously black physiognomy.”[10] While many noted the attention to archeological detail, it was Cleopatra’s nose that made her work unique. By seeing how Lewis followed or separated from the usual depictions of Cleopatra one is able then see why she may have made such choices. One could then ask, did she make such a choice to follow the social norm or create an acceptance within the viewers?

During the nineteenth century Cleopatra’s race was a subject of much debate. Cleopatra was also understood as a measure of the level of proper or improper behavior in women. She was represented as a sexual manipulator, and because of this, women in the nineteenth century highlighted her racial heritage as a black African to separate themselves from the actions of Cleopatra. Women of the nineteenth century do this in spite of Cleopatra being a member of the Greco-Egyptian Ptolemaic dynasty.[11] Abolitionists used her blackness as a way to defend the ability for blacks to self-govern, rather than a way to separate themselves from the actions of Cleopatra.[12] But a choice to depict Cleopatra as a black African could also symbolize the innate sexuality within African American women, due to the “pervasive belief in the black’s pathological sexuality and the forced sexual availability and social visibility of the black female body within slavery.”[13] Edmonia Lewis’s choice to represent Cleopatra within an anthropologically accurate heritage is evidence of her understanding of the debate behind Cleopatra, her race, and the representation of the black female within the nineteenth century culture.

Kristen Pai Buick gives dual ideas behind why Lewis may have chosen to portray Cleopatra in such a way. In the article “A Question of “Likeness”: Edmonia Lewis’s “The Death of Cleopatra”” Buick argues that Lewis “felt compelled to separate Egypt from Cleopatra and Cleopatra from the African-American woman” due to Cleopatra’s characteristics of being power hungry and overly sexual.[14] According to Buick’s interpretation, Lewis’s choice to represent Cleopatra with more classical Greek and fewer references to African features shows her separation of black women from the stereotype of extreme sexuality.

For Lewis the depiction of Cleopatra involved a variety of choices and a need to understand the social dynamics surrounding the Egyptian queen. Lewis was obviously aware of how Cleopatra was seen as a sexual deviant, a seductress leading to the downfall of man. She was also likely to be aware of how she is often portrayed and why she is portrayed as such. Just as white women would portray Cleopatra as a black woman in order to distance themselves from her story of a “power-mad, sexually controlling woman,”[15] Lewis would also find these traits undesirable to connect to black woman. Particularly while trying to convey a positive image for the newly freed African Americans. Therefore avoiding the depiction of a black African woman and following anthropological depictions on coins Lewis would be able to focus attention on the work of art rather than negative images of African American woman.


1. Kristen Pai Buick. “A Question of ‘Likeness’: Edmonia Lewis’s ‘The Death of Cleopatra.’” Notes in the History of Art 24, no. 4 (Summer 2005): 3.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Charmaine Nelson. The Color of Stone: Sculpting the Black Female Subject in Nineteenth-Century America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007): 130.

5. Buick, “A Question of ‘Likeness’: Edmonia Lewis’s ‘The Death of Cleopatra.’” 3.

6. Ibid.

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