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In Hindsight: Buick's Child of the Fire (Duke UP, 2010)

Kirsten Pai Buick's recent book on American sculptor Mary Edmonia Lewis is getting pretty great reviews, as well it should.  Buick, an art historian, succeeds in presenting Lewis as the consummate 19th century American artist in response to the Emersonian desire for a uniquely American expression- something perhaps that Whitman achieved in poetry, or others in paint.

Lewis, with an African American father and mixed African American/Ojibwa mother, was uniquely positioned in the mid-19th century with insights into cultures- enslaved and freed African Americans and dispossesed and migratory Native Americans- that enabled her to artistically engage, as did earlier novelists like James Fenimore Cooper, with the boundaries and experience of race and mixed race identities in 19th century America.  Born in 1844, Lewis received an education at the radically progressive Oberlin University, in an antislavery stronghold of Ohio- a school which pioneered integrated university training of blacks and whites as well as co-education of men and women.  From Oberlin, Lewis traveled to Boston, then Italy and France, where she spent the majority of her adult life.

Buick's book provides a quick biographical chapter, a chapter which situates Lewis among the African American artists and artistic themes of the 19th century, and a similar chapter on Native American artists and representations of the era, and finally includes an indepth study of Lewis' engagement with classical and European scultpure in her own Death of Cleopatra.

A link to a piece on Lewis from the Smithsonian (1996):

Lewis's work appears around the nation in several public and private collection, and below are a few photographs from various collection's sites.  Lewis sculpted idealized notions of Native Americans, particularly influenced by Longfellow's Hiawatha poems.  She also scultped works centering on emancipation such as busts of Abraham Lincoln and Robert Gould Shaw (commander of the all-black 54th Regiment depicted in the film Glory), as well as monuments to the freedmen and women.  Yet Lewis was also uninhibited in her determination to participate in creating works of art based upon Greco-Roman mythography then dominant in European postNeoClassical and Romantic sculpture. 


  1. Unless you are a Art History major this book is very difficult to read. I found the biographical parts very interesting but I never felt I knew the subject - Mary Edmonia Lewis. Loved the prints.


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