Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 4, 2008
Charmaine A. Nelson The Color of Stone: Sculpting the Black Female Subject in Nineteenth-Century America Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007. 272 pp.; 40 b/w ills. Paper $27.50 (9870816646517)

Charmaine Nelson has produced an important book framing American Neoclassical sculpture within nineteenth-century discourses of race, gender, and colonialism. She explores the ways in which the intersecting categories of “blackness” and “femininity” are socially, politically, culturally, and psychically constructed in and through the representational practices of ideal statuary. As a black feminist scholar, Nelson wants to “render [her] methodological apparatus” transparent and is committed to pursuing a methodology that explores “race and racial signification as inextricable from sex and gender signification” (xvi, xxi).

It is only recently that British, Canadian, and U.S. art historians have looked afresh at Neoclassicism, its transatlantic character, and its ideological power. Nelson contributes a highly theorized perspective to a growing body of feminist scholarship on Neoclassical sculpture, building upon the work of Joy Kasson and her groundbreaking study, Marble Queens and Captives: Women in Nineteenth Century-American Sculpture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), and more recently Nancy Proctor’s dissertation, “American Women Sculptors in Rome in the Mid-Nineteenth Century: Feminist and Psychoanalytic Readings of a Displaced Canon” (University of Leeds, 1998); Kristen Pai Buick’s dissertation (University of Michigan, 1999, and forthcoming book), “The Sentimental Education of Mary Edmonia Lewis: Identity, Culture and Ideal Works”; Deborah Cherry’s excellent study, Beyond the Frame: Feminism and Visual Culture, Britain 1850–1900 (New York: Routledge, 2000); and my own book, “The American Corinnes: Women Sculptors and the Eternal City, 1850–1876” (forthcoming).

The Color of Stone opens with a critical overview of what is known in the art-historical literature as “the white marmorean flock,” the impressive group of American Neoclassical women sculptors who lived, traveled, and worked in Rome between 1848 and the 1880s. Expanding upon Proctor’s feminist critique of this moniker, Nelson further deconstructs this racialized label penned by Henry James in his 1903 biography of the American sculptor William Wetmore Story. “The term white, amplified by the term marmorean,” she explains, “carried the implication of whiteness as privileged racial signifier” (14; emphasis in original). Among these talented women sculptors, Edmonia Lewis, an African-American/Native American artist in Rome, takes center stage in Nelson’s narrative. Lewis’s artistic legacy is especially circumscribed by James’s condescending label that rendered racial diversity invisible among these women and thus diminished Lewis’s professional stature in Rome.

Deploying a methodology derived from critical race studies, Nelson is relentless in her scrutiny of whiteness as a “privileged racial signifier” within the logic of nineteenth-century colonialism. She attempts to rescue Lewis from a familiar exoticism by an insistence upon “othering” or making strange both the lives and marble sculptures of Anglo-American artists who worked beside Lewis in Rome. “The question is . . . not whether Lewis’s racial identification should be considered when her art is analyzed,” Nelson states, “but why the racial identifications of her white contemporaries are regularly overlooked when their art is analyzed” (25). She refuses to naturalize whiteness, particularly in terms of skin tone, sculptural property, and visuality, arguing that the materiality of marble itself held significance within Neoclassicism by refusing the representation of the black body. Lewis’s invisibility within the artistic community of the “white marmorean flock,” Nelson asserts, parallels the erasure of racial difference within nineteenth-century Neoclassical representation.

In the next two sections of the book, Nelson focuses upon key Neoclassical images that illustrate the illegibility of race in the nineteenth century. In her discussion of Hiram Powers’s Greek Slave (ca. 1843–1844; first version), she focuses upon the significance of the chains. In his 1869 version, Powers transformed the decorative chains into realistic and historically specific manacles that marked “the symbolic transition of the black body from free to enslaved, human to commodity” (108), thereby relating the sculpture more specifically to blackness and slavery. Certainly by 1869, Powers could safely apply manacles to the sixth version of the sculpture and thus evoke the black female slave body. He no longer feared the ire of conservative American patrons. Nor, as I have argued elsewhere, was Reconstruction as much a challenge to the status quo as it once had been. Proposed in 1869 and ratified the following year, the Fifteenth Amendment inserted gender into the language of the Constitution for the first time, supporting universal manhood suffrage and eschewing the more radical pledge of citizenship for all—including white and black women. If not specifically stated, the amendment allowed all men (black and white) to vote and assume the role of citizen. This privilege was not bestowed upon women, either white or black. To be sure, the (now) freed black woman would remain invisible in the national imagination as well as in artistic representation for the remainder of the century.

How did nineteenth-century audiences read race into the Greek Slave at the same time that Neoclassicism foreclosed the possibility of racial difference? Certainly the chains/manacles provided one semiotic link. Nelson argues that it would have been impossible in the late 1840s and early 1850s for Americans to see this sculpture outside of the political debates and sectarian hostilities regarding slavery and its expansion into newly acquired territories. Frederick Douglass, for example, argued in the North Star that the sculpture stood for every slave. Nelson contends that the interracial body served as a legible, acceptable, and sanitized sign of slavery. “The white viewing audience of Powers’s Greek Slave was urged to read the slave body as white or at least interracial. It was through the identification of white Negroes, the ‘daughters of white men’ whose bodies bore the symbolic signs of white female identity,” she argued, that the sculpture’s antislavery message was deployed (97). Continuing this line of argumentation, she writes, “The representational impossibility of the black female body, specifically its antithetical constitution with the Eurocentric conception of beauty, was such that the figure of the octoroon or interracial black woman became almost synonymous with the black woman within American neoclassical sculpture” (126; emphasis in original). To this viewer, however, the Greek Slave does not convey symbolically or otherwise interracial blackness. There appear no signs of the black female slave, figured with the “physical body of the laborer and the sexual body of a breeder” (117). Ensconced in the rhetoric of spirituality, the Greek Slave, with her aquiline features, virtuous frailty, and pathetic vulnerability, consolidated notions of white bourgeois femininity.

Cleopatra, however, was the perfect incarnation of this hybrid body. As queen of Egypt, she represented the “racial and cultural bridge” between Europe and Africa and between white and black in the nineteenth-century colonial Western imagination (114). Nelson discusses William Wetmore Story’s Cleopatra (1858–1860; first version) and its significance to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel about American artists in Rome, The Marble Faun of 1860. She argues that abolitionists like Story could have it both ways with this imagery. On the one hand, he represented Cleopatra as a “black queen, a type of African allegory, in order to convey . . . an America divided against itself in war by racial strife and more specifically divided on the issues of the status of the black subject within its union” (156). On the other hand, contemporaneous critics, such as Hawthorne, understood Cleopatra as “possessing the potential for an animalistic sexuality coded as black and dangerous.” Nelson rightly concludes, “Story made Cleopatra black enough to evoke danger and provide sexual titillation but white enough to register beauty and inspire abolitionist sympathy” (157).

The last chapter addresses Edmonia Lewis’s Death of Cleopatra, completed in 1875 and exhibited at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. In her sculpture, Lewis presented a radically new way of representing death in the nineteenth century. Her Cleopatra was a body in its death throes, dying under the audience’s gaze, rather than figuring death as an aestheticized sleep or repose. Moreover, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the historic personage of Cleopatra was equated with the black female subject. If Cleopatra represented black/African subjectivity, what could her death by suicide signify about the black race? According to Nelson, the sculpture communicated a disillusionment at the failure of Reconstruction.

But Lewis made a conscious choice to race her Cleopatra as white. “In refusing visible racial signs of blackness for her Cleopatra,” Nelson explains, Lewis “distanced herself from any attempts by her white audience to read her[self] into the work” (178). In so doing, the sculptor avoided what Proctor calls “the Pygmalion effect,” the denial of creative agency on the part of the woman artist when her moral character is subsumed within the work of art. Lewis’s Cleopatra, however, complicates the very categories by which Neoclassical sculpture was understood. Rather than serving a normative function, her whiteness is racialized, encoding notions of Africa and the black diaspora. Nelson, thus, illustrates the process by which the queen’s white body signified an African blackness within the American cultural imagination.

Nelson’s mission is laudable in bringing a critical race perspective to the study of nineteenth-century American Neoclassical sculpture. Unfortunately, a few historical inaccuracies appear in the book. In chapter 5, “The Color of Slavery,” Nelson chronicles the deployment of the interracial female/white Negro trope as a strategy for representing the unrepresentable—the black female slave body. In referencing Anne Whitney’s Ethiopia Shall Soon Stretch Out Her Hands to God, or Africa of 1862–1864 and later reworked in 1865–1866 (both versions grace the cover of this paperback), Nelson discusses Whitney’s “retreat from a more obvious black physiognomy” to more purified white features (129). In fact, Whitney’s artistic process developed in reverse. In 1864, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an abolitionist commander of a black regiment, criticized Ethiopia’s whiteness, writing to Whitney, “To my eyes, all that your statue asserts, the features of the face deny.” Everyone would appreciate, he added, “the triumph of Africanized features.” In response, Whitney subtly reworked the facial features to include fuller lips, wider nose, and broader cheekbones. In so doing, she arrived at a mixed race identity by bringing “Africanizing” features to her ideal sculpture.

At times, Nelson seems unfamiliar with some of the important cultural players of the day. For example, Maria Weston Chapman is described simply as a patron of Lewis (20, 22) rather than the prominent Boston abolitionist and editor of the Liberty Bell and the Liberator (in Garrison’s absence). She erroneously states, albeit in a footnote, that Thomas Crawford, rather than Thomas Ball, was awarded the Sumner Memorial after the jury refused to allow Whitney the commission because of her sex (fn. 29, 201).

Although she has spent time in Italy, Nelson follows the course of many art historians who deny the historical complexities of nineteenth-century Rome. In the 1850s, Rome was a very different place—still a colony of the Vatican—than in 1884 when the nation state was united and well on its way to modernization. Nelson homogenizes the Roman situation and the American response to it. She quotes Hawthorne’s and James’s writing at length as paradigmatic of the expatriate experience. “The Rome of many of these expatriate Americans seems conspicuously free of Romans,” she contends (6). When one digs deeply into the lives of expatriate artists, writers, and reformers in Italy, one finds a very different type of Roman or Florentine experience. For example, Thomas Crawford and Powers fought side by side with Italians in the years 1848 to 1850 in Italy’s aborted republican struggle for independence from colonial rule. Until unification was complete in 1871 and Rome became the new capital, many American and British expatriates in Florence and Rome (Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Margaret Fuller, Whitney, to name a few) spoke Italian, interacted regularly with Italian Republicans, and supported the unification effort. Indeed, Anglo-Americans in Italy demonstrated a wide range of touristic and expatriate experiences. It’s time to explore these experiences in more detail.

In The Color of Stone, Charmaine Nelson has opened up new ways of looking at Neoclassical sculpture and introduced creative avenues for thinking about its powerful cultural meanings. In so doing, she has provided a great service to American art historians.

Melissa Dabakis
Professor and Chair, Art History Department, Kenyon College