Mary Edmonia Lewis


It is through the use of social art history that one is able to understand how a work of art was portrayed, received, and read in its contemporary setting. Though the use of contemporary letters and articles one can come to understand the mindset of those contemporary to the artist and the works of art. In Edmonia Lewis’s sculptures Forever Free and The Death of Cleopatra, we can see that avoiding the depiction of a black female was heavily influenced by the gender and racial conventions of the time. The Cult of True Womanhood, the idea behind the black patriarchy for true freedom, the overtly sexual behavior attached to both Cleopatra and black women in the nineteenth century created a limited sphere where the depiction of a black female figure could be read in a positive light. Edmonia Lewis, trying to depict the, now free, African American woman and the African Queen wanted to be able to have her sculpted figures and black women in society viewed in a positive light, needed to conform to stereotypical gender and racial preferences to appeal to her viewers. One could wonder if she had chosen to depict her female figures within the racial identity being depicted in the work of art whether they would have been received as positively or if her message would have been understood as clearly. If this was in-fact a concern for Edmonia Lewis it very well may be way she avoided the racial identities of her women to prevent a misunderstanding of her artwork by contemporary viewers.

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