by Michael Faris
The story of Cleopatra (69-30 BCE) is certainly a dramatic one. She was the Queen of Egypt from 51 to 30 BCE, and one of the most significant people of her time. Her tragic and unusual death made her even more famous, and she is still one of the most prominent historical figures in the world.
Amid much intrigue and conspiracy, Cleopatra and her lover Marc Antony waged a naval battle against the Roman forces of Octavian. The major battle was at Actium, which is now part of Greece. The forces of Octavian overpowered their opponents, and chased them back to Egypt, where they began an invasion. The Egyptians didn’t have a chance, and Marc Antony and Cleopatra separately committed suicide, rather than be taken prisoner. Cleopatra famously used the poison bite of an asp to bring about her death, possibly the most well-known self-induced death in history.
This death was the subject of a fantastic sculpture by Edmonia Lewis, one of the greatest sculptors in American history. Lewis captured the image of Cleopatra just after her death, her face trapped in a slight smile, her body gone limp in her throne. The sculpture is heartbreaking and beautiful, and the story of this work of art, which was missing from the art world for decades, is almost incredible.
The story of Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907) is dramatic as well. Lewis was born in Greenbush, New York, in 1844. Her father was African-Haitian and her mother was African-Ojibway. Her parents died when she was young, and she was raised by her maternal aunts in upstate New York. She attended college at Oberlin, in Ohio. At Oberlin she was involved in a scandal involving accusations of her poisoning two White girls, which resulted in her being beaten by a White mob and arrested for the alleged crime. She was acquitted of the charges, but her education at Oberlin was effectively over, and she was not allowed to finish her final term.
She moved to Boston in 1864 with the idea of becoming a professional sculptor, and faced the usual racial difficulties of opportunity that Black people faced in the nineteenth century. She eventually found an established artist with whom to study. Edward Augustus Brackett, a portrait sculptor, took her in and taught her to copy existing marble works with clay. She ultimately learned to work with stone, and also began to make marble portraits, like her mentor. She had been embraced by the local abolitionists, and had started a fairly successful career as an artist. Lewis then moved to Rome, Italy, and became even more successful. Her sculptures were selling for thousands of dollars. She had a major exhibition of her works in Chicago in 1870, and in Rome in 1871.
A significant time in her career was her participation in the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. It was for this Exposition that she made her famous sculpture, The Death of Cleopatra. This is a large marble sculpture, sixty-three inches tall, and it weighs 3,015 pounds. It was the hit of the Exposition, called “the most remarkable piece of sculpture in the American section.” The statue reportedly drew thousands of viewers.
Despite its popularity, the statue did not initially sell. It was briefly placed in storage, then moved to be exhibited in the Chicago Interstate Exposition of 1878. It was apparently sold in Chicago and placed in a bar on Clark Street. This started the wild journey of the statue. A gambler named Blind John Condon bought the statue from the bar owner, and used it as a grave marker for a horse he had owned named Cleopatra. The grave was in front of the grandstand of the race track in the Chicago suburb Forest Park. After several years there, in the 1970s, the statue was moved to a construction storage yard in Cicero, another suburb of Chicago. The sculpture stayed in the storage yard for years, unrecognized and ignored, unprotected from the elements. By this time, the sculpture had suffered some damage from years of outside exposure. To make things worse, a local Boy Scout troop decided to “repair” Cleopatra, painting it and causing other damage to it. Later, in 1985, Dr. James Orland, a dentist and member of the Forest Park Historical Society, acquired the statue and placed it in storage at the Forest Park Mall.
Orland and the Forest Park Historical Society contacted the Metropolitan Museum of Art about the statue. The Met contacted Marilyn Richardson, an independent curator and African American art specialist. Richardson was writing a biography of Lewis at the time, and had been searching for information about the statue. She verified the location of the statue and contacted African American bibliographer Dorothy Porter Wesley and George Gurney of the Smithsonian Museum. The Forest Park Historical Society wanted to donate the statue to the Smithsonian, and it was gratefully accepted in 1994.
Restoration expert Andrezej Dajnowski, working with Smithsonian restorers, repaired the sculpture to a near original state. Working from a single old photograph, they repaired the nose, sandals, hands, chin, and the overall surface of the statue. Restoration cost was approximately $30,000. At the time, Gurney stated, “We’ve done the best we can to return it as close to its original grandeur as we’ve been able to deduce from the old photograph.” He went on to assert that further work could be accomplished if necessary: “Nothing we did is permanent. If more evidence of the work’s initial appearance surfaces, everything can be reversed.”
The statue is beautiful. Cleopatra is depicted in royal garb on her throne, wearing her crown, apparently resting in death. Her right hand holds a tiny cobra, a symbol of royalty in Egypt. Identical pharaonic heads are connected to the arms of the throne, possibly symbolizing the twin sons she had with Marc Antony. Stylized flowers tastefully decorate the inside back of the throne.
Gurney said that it is the only sculpture he knows that portrays Cleopatra actually dying or dead. “Perhaps Lewis thought other sculptors had misrepresented Cleopatra and she felt she had new insights,” he said. The sculpture now resides at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art (NMAA) in Washington, DC.
About the Writer
Dr. Michael Faris is an artist, art educator, and art and civil rights advocate. Visit his website to view more of his work at www.michaelfarisart.com.