Reviewer biography

Current Reviews

Review Articles

Book Reviews Archive

The Color of Stone: Sculpting the Black Female Subject in Nineteenth-Century America

by Charmaine A. Nelson
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis MN, 2007
320 pp., illus. 40 halftones. Trade, $82.50; paper, $27.50
ISBN: 0 0-8166-4650-3; ISBN: 0-8166-4651-1.

Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


Evidently there exists little biographical information on nineteenth century sculptor Edmonia Lewis. Charmaine A. Nelson, of McGill University in Montreal, used this to her advantage. The scholar let her search for data bring forth a broader examination of the politics of nineteenth-century neoclassical sculpture, its aesthetics of gender and beauty, and its racial discourse. These are spiced by the judgments and gossip within an energetic collection–I hesitate to say "community", for it seems to have worked to exclude Lewis–of fellow artists.

Nelson examines the context of Lewis, a female American sculptor in Paris, and her added burdens as a Black and Native American one. Racist reservations about her competence were expressed in letters by her contemporaries. Nelson taps these peer reactions to surmise the artistic strategies Lewis used to keep her career intact.

The sculptor looks out from a single photograph in the book, a studio portrait (perhaps by Nadar?) from about 1870 that now resides in the National Portrait Gallery. In modest urban dress, her curly hair frames her poised and peaceful face beneath her small hat, as she wears a somewhat plain long dress (not the satins of Ingres' wealthy sitters), and a velvet shawl.

There was a colony of American artists in Rome, and one of the most successful was the independently wealthy William Wetmore Story. Female artists practicing in Rome, like Anne Whitney or Charlotte Cushman and her companion Emma Stebbins, were sneered at as "Lady-Artists". Harriet Hosmer commanded a group of Italian artisan stonecutters who actually completed commissioned pieces for her. Most of the artists’ studios hosted many visitors, who included writers Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry James. Lewis’ white peers like Hosmer are described in letters and accounts by Hawthorne and James.

Edmonia Lewis distinguished herself to her stateside patrons with a memorial sculpture of the Bostonian Robert Gould Shaw, commander of a regiment of African American soldiers in the Civil War. Living in Rome on limited funds, Lewis spent money for expensive music and riding lessons, in part to be better conversant with her patrons and their interests. Her wavering patrons and supporters like Lydia Maria Child, a white female social reformer and abolitionist belittled Lewis in letters and patronizing comments behind her back. Anne Whitney snidely claimed Lewis' success was due to committed "friends of the race", rather than the artist's own talent, a resentment against successful nonwhite people that we hear voiced by grumblers today.

Since Napolean’s Egyptian campaign, neoclassicism was exoticizing orientalism as well. Jean-Léon Gérome painted detailed slave markets and harems, and Jean Auguste-Dominique Ingres painted his bountiful nude women of the seraglio. Meanwhile, images of captivity were popular, the shackles sometimes encircling coy and voluptuous female nudes; in the United States, this genre included Hiram Powers' 1843 "Greek Slave". Erastus Dow Palmer's "White Captive" appealed to a nation still immersed in narratives of Indian captives, tales used to justify brutality towards the Indians. When sculptors depicted manumission of Africans in America, abolitionist patrons generally preferred the grateful ex-slaves shown in a submissive position. There was also a genre of paintings and sculptures that showed mixed-race slave children who were fathered by their white owners.

Examining racialized bodies, sculptures of Cleopatra by William Wetmore Story and Edmonia Lewis are compared and contrasted. When Anne Whitney sculpted an allegory of Africa, she de-Africanized the facial features as it progressed. Whitney cut down the ruler of the Nile’s full nose and lips to leave at the end a rathered mouse-nosed and mealy-mouth queen.

The author questions the very nature of unblemished smooth white stone itself. In contrast to the cool white marble expected for most classical works, some artists used colored stone for different skin hues. The sculptures of Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier, like "African in Algerian Costume", sensitively depict people of color in dark marble. Yet in concept these works strive to be "typical" of racial types, rather than portraits of individuals, which Nelson finds as distancing as the era’s prevailing conventions of classicism.

In discussing the Black, Native and female identity with tools of contemporary theory, Nelson calls upon slave narratives and rude cartoons showing uppity slaves and free Blacks; reminders of the terrors of slavery and indignities of casually-accepted racism. Seeking Edmonia Lewis, the author traverses neoclassicism, politics, gender, and race. Still, the comparatively privileged artists’ careerist sniping (some things never change) make for an entertaining read. When a Hollywood movie is made of Edmonia Lewis' working life and struggle in Rome’s bubbling, competitive art world, Charmaine A. Nelson's valuable book will further be a resource. Who’s optioned the film rights?



Updated 1st November 2007

Contact LDR: ldr@leonardo.org

Contact Leonardo: isast@sfsu.edu

copyright © 2007 ISAST