Mary Edmonia Lewis was an American-born neoclassical sculptor in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Working within the traditions of neoclassical art, depicting the subjects of slavery, emancipation, and Native Americans; while not necessarily odd subjects to be depicted in sculpture during this time Lewis’s depictions of her subjects, particularly the female figures, brings into question why she would choose to portray them in such a traditional iconographic manner and what point was she attempting to make through that depiction. Questions of whether her figures were depicted due to being a popular style of the time, or if it was a conscious choice to either explore a social opinion or please the viewing audience. To be able to answer these questions, it is important to delve into the social views and opinions of the nineteenth century. Through analysis of the pieces Forever Free and The Death of Cleopatra I intend to discern the reasoning behind Edmonia Lewis’s lack of racial identity for her female figures.
Scholarship on Edmonia Lewis tends to have large gaps and be somewhat limited. Though there is now becoming more and more scholarship in Edmonia Lewis, she is a recent topic for scholars to investigate. This is likely due to the interest that emerged after the Civil and Women’s Rights movements occurring during the late 1950’s to 1970’s. Even so, it was not until the 1990’s when there was a stronger focus to truly integrate women’s history into view. Most of the scholarship of Edmonia Lewis and her sculptures focus on the male to female relationships between her figures, the racial identity of her figures, and her race. While race is an important factor, most scholars have moved away from tying the female figures to Lewis’s identity. This use of racial tautology had often closed possible readings of Lewis’s figures due to not allowing for any interpretation other than that of self-identification. Hugh Honour almost exclusively focused on the identity of Lewis or her mother as the connection to the race of the female figures. This focus on Edmonia Lewis’s race is often translated as a way to analyze her artwork as a form of self-identification often left out evidence within the contemporary period the artist was working. This issue is a reason why modern scholars, such as Kristen Pai Buick and Susanna W. Gold, tend to use the social art history method as a way to analyze Edmonia Lewis’s sculptures. Buick in particular focused heavily on the relationships Lewis had with abolitionists, the philosophy of the family structure, the new freedom of the African American slaves, and where race and gender placed one in society within the nineteenth century. The scholarship today tends to focus on how Lewis chose to depict her figures the way she did due to the racial and gender views of the nineteenth century surrounding the Civil War.
It is through the examination of the philosophies on race and gender in the nineteenth century, that scholars apply how those could influence Edmonia Lewis’s sculptures. In order to understand why Lewis avoided portraying her female figures as African or Native Americans, I will explore the social ideals of the time in regards to race, gender, and family. It is through the exploration of social aspects of the nineteenth century and Edmonia Lewis’s place within the artistic and social community, that I will discuss how the depiction of racially ambiguous female figures was done intentionally, not to as a form of self-identity but rather for her artwork to be understood and well received by contemporary viewers.