The Death of Cleopatra, by Edmonia Lewis
Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907) was an African-American and Native American sculptor during the period of the American Civil War. She faced strong and painful prejudices that endangered her life. Yet despite this she became one of the most celebrated neoclassical sculptors of her time. The aspects of her identity which caused such a stir in society as precisely the themes which she included into her work.
The History of the Work
Created in 1876, ‘The Death of Cleopatra’ is one of Edmonia Lewis’ most recognised works. It depicts the famous Cleopatra in the moment of her death, life fading from her as the poison flows through her veins. While Cleopatra was a frequently used symbol within neoclassical art, this particular choice of scene was not. Lewis was certainly known for adding unique elements. She particularly liked to represent strong women from history, clearly feeling a connection to them. Among the theme of powerful women, she often respectfully represented aspects of her identity. This included her African-American and Native American heritage.
It was first exhibited at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, and caused quite the drama. Many praised Lewis for her genius, while others condemned her for the realness of death presented to them in the form of marble. For added drama, the piece vanished and traveled for quite some time. It reappeared 100 years later to rest in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
As Edmonia Lewis herself said, “Some praise me because I am a colored girl, and I don’t want that kind of praise. I had rather you would point out my defects, for that will teach me something.” (Lewis, n.d) Yet it’s hard not to. She was an ambitious and proud woman that earnt her place in history.
- Lewis, E. (1876). The Death of Cleopatra. Retrieved from https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/death-cleopatra-33878
- Lewis, E. (n.d.). AZQuotes.com. Retrieved January 30, 2020, from AZQuotes.com Web site: https://www.azquotes.com/author/47172-Edmonia_Lewis