The Ideal Works of Edmonia Lewis: Invoking and Inverting Autobiography

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Kirsten Buick’s article “The Ideal Works of Edmonia Lewis: Invoking and Inverting Autobiography” focuses on several different works by the African-Indian sculptor. The article is beneficial in analyzing the cultural significance of Lewis’s works. Buick concentrates specifically on six of Lewis’s sculptures: Forever Free, Hagar in the Wilderness, Minnehaha, The Old Indian Arrowmaker and His Daughter, Hiawatha, and The Marriage of Hiawatha. Buick states, “while the subjects of her sculptures are African American and Native American women, invoking her autobiography, their features follow idealized, western European models” (190).

In this article review, I will discuss Kirsten Buick’s use of data, structure, tone, and voice to formulate the article, the strengths and weaknesses her argument, and finally, broader implications of the article. Kirsten Buick’s article is organized into four main sections: Lewis’s Freedwomen, Lewis’s Bondwomen, Lewis’s Indian Women, and Art and Self. Throughout the article, Buick’s tone remains scholarly and formal. Her voice remains neutral and without opinion.

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The first section of the article, Lewis’s Freedwomen, focuses on the sculptures Forever Free and Freedwoman on First Hearing of Her Liberty.

Specifically she writes about the relationship between man and woman in the sculptures. Buick states that “criticism of Lewis’s Forever Free, for example, has often regarded the relative positions of the male and female as reinforcing gendered stereotypes of male ‘aggression’ and female ‘passivity’” (190). The second section, Lewis’s Bondwomen, focuses on single female figures in Lewis’s work. Buick states that Hagar in the Wilderness “represents the frustration of normalized gender roles within the body of one female figure” (196).

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The third section, Lewis’s Indian Women, discusses the contrast in Lewis’s portrayal of Indian men and women.

Buick points out that “Lewis’s women bear only the trappings of a specific ethnicity” while oppositely, “men signify ethnicity” (198-199). The final section of the article, Art and Self, poses the question: “What would Lewis have risked if she had sculpted obviously black or obviously Indian women” (201)? The article goes on to explain that Lewis wanted her art to be separate from her ethnicity and gender. Here Buick explains that Lewis “refused to be victimized by her own hand” (201). Buick provides several quotes from art historians and passages from interviews with Lewis, making her argument and article stronger.

Very few weaknesses exist within Kirsten Buick’s article. Because of the divisions in the article, there is no clear thesis. Each section in the article seems to have its own thesis statement. Additionally, Buick’s conclusion paragraph, only two sentences long, does not adequately wrap up the article. Despite these minor flaws, the article is very well written and organized. Buick provides more than sufficient data to back up her argument. She provides quotes from other writers and columnists, art historians, and Edmonia Lewis herself.

When discussing Lewis’s sculpture Hagar in the Wilderness, Buick provides text from the Bible on Hagar. After providing a visual analysis of each sculpture mentioned, Buick explains their cultural significance. For example, Buick mentions the relationship between mother and child in Lewis’s The Freedwoman on First Hearing of Her Liberty and explains, “with the end of slavery, mother and child were no longer property that could be separated and sold” (195). The article leaves little to be desired. By providing cultural context, Buick’s article is successful in its social and cultural significance. The Ideal Works of Edmonia Lewis: Invoking and Inverting Autobiography” is a significant article in broader discussions about the roles of race and gender in the art world. Buick states that Lewis’s work “has a far-reaching cultural significance because it is inflected by each modifier, both singly and in combination, that can be used to describe her: ‘American,’ ‘sculptor,’ ‘African American,’ and ‘Native American’” (190). Edmonia Lewis is a noteworthy artist because she is “the first documented American woman sculptor of African Indian descent” (190).

Although Lewis acted in opposition to Victorian standards, her art supported the gender ideals of the era. As Buick points out in her article, Lewis’s art supported the gender ideals of the nineteenth century despite her personal opposition to Victorian conventions. In spite of the fact that several other female sculptors made these same decisions, Lewis stands out. Her work is significant because she “not only selected subjects who conformed to Victorian gender ideals; she also depicted these women in an idealized way” (195).

In addition to gender, Lewis’s race plays an important role in her art career. Buick explains “like other black women who entered the public arena in the nineteenth century, Lewis found that credibility, in the form of objectivity, was very difficult to achieve” (202). Lewis’s race not only asserted who she was as an artist, but also manifests itself into her work. The figures in Lewis’s sculptures are “whitewashed. ” Buick argues that Lewis’s decision to eliminate color “was influenced by the Cult of True Womanhood, which crossed all racial boundaries.

In addition, it was common artistic practice in the nineteenth century to depict Native American women according to Greek ideals, while African American women were rarely depicted at all” (199). The “whitewashing” of the figures reiterates Lewis’s desire to depict them as Europeans. Here Buick states that the sculptures “represent Lewis’s desire to broaden the category of ‘woman’ to include women who were not European American” (198). Kirsten Buick’s article is an influential contribution to the ongoing discussion of race and gender in art. Buick successfully articulates the role that Lewis’s female, African-Indian identity plays in her work.

The article does not discuss Lewis’s work based on current race and gender studies, but instead examines them based on their time period in the nineteenth century. This is important because it provides contemporary art historians with something to judge against. For example, Buick argues that Forever Free “presents a reconstructed image of the African American family after slavery and becomes a subtle commentary on the hopes for the newly liberated population” (192). Buick’s article is significant in providing a foundation for race and gender studies in the nineteenth century and can be used by future generations to reference the time period.

Cite this page

The Ideal Works of Edmonia Lewis: Invoking and Inverting Autobiography. (2017, Jan 02). Retrieved from

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