Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 28, 2011
Kirsten Pai Buick Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History's Black and Indian Subject Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010. 344 pp.; 18 color ills.; 33 b/w ills. Paper $24.95 (9780822342663)

Kirsten Pai Buick has been establishing herself as the authority on Mary Edmonia Lewis over the past decade and a half with a series of monographic articles and a dissertation (University of Michigan, 1999). Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History’s Black and Indian Subject is her anticipated full-length examination of this sculptor’s career. It is a thoughtful, groundbreaking study that should be a must-read for anyone interested in art of the United States and in a nuanced treatment of race, ethnicity, and gender. Buick’s book challenges late twentieth-century identity politics of current art history that maddeningly continue to insist that black or Native American or women artists reproduce their race and gender in their work. Having developed a carefully honed and sophisticated methodology, Buick analyzes Lewis’s working process, supporting infrastructure, and ultimate achievement. It is a challenge to write the story of a life that still remains as obscure and sketchy as Lewis’s, a woman who had two names: “Wildfire,” signifier of her Indian past, and “Mary Edmonia,” her entrée into “civilization.” Buick deftly diverts the discussion away from biography, with all the ideological and emotional baggage it carries, and utilizes instead the concept of “career” in order “to study the effects of culture and institutions on the artist that then reveal to us patterns of intention” (2). Buick situates her subject within the culture that shaped and instructed her in the cultures of “True Womanhood” and of “Sentiment.” But most of all, she reinserts her into the context of nineteenth-century American art, devoid of any hyphenated qualifier.

This Americanism is the dominant thread of the book, which weaves its way back and forth through an intricate web of supporting themes, characters, and institutions. When Buick provides a trio of epigraphs by the intellectual godparents of her study, readers might have anticipated her choice of Frederick Douglass, followed by Toni Morrison. Above their quotations, however, are the words that in essence open the book, and give it its title: “For we are not pans and barrows, nor even porters of the fire and torch-bearers, but children of the fire, made of it, and only the same divinity transmuted and at two or three removes, when we know least about it” (Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet” (1844)). Privileging Emerson, she makes a claim for Lewis to be considered first and foremost an American artist. At the same time, Child of the Fire demonstrates Lewis’s active if conflicted participation in the forging of a national art, especially in the years between 1866 and 1876 when she created a succession of her most popular sculptures: Hagar in the Wilderness (1875), Forever Free (The Morning of Liberty) (1867), multiple works based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 poem The Song of Hiawatha, and The Death of Cleopatra (1875). Each of these provides the foci of individual chapters.

There are many corrections here to the misconceptions that have been perpetuated in the earlier literature, sometimes instigated by Lewis herself. Contrary to the artist’s claims, Buick produces evidence to suggest that her mother Catherine was not a “full-blooded Indian.” The oft-repeated tale of Lewis’s expulsion from Oberlin is here clarified and further complicated by an in-depth probe of the school’s mission and the ways in which its ideology impacted its students. These historical revisions are necessary and welcome.

The book’s format invites readers to take it up and learn more of its elusive subject. Lewis’s photographic portrait appears on the cover, an engaging close-up of her upper body and of her face gazing off beyond the camera. Although the label on the back cover does not identify it as a detail, it is in fact cropped from the carte-de-visite by Henry Rocher (1870) which takes a more distant view of the full-length seated figure. This visual detail alone is telling, one that teases readers into imagining they can get close to her and then reminding them that they can never discover more than she was willing to divulge. The volume’s 6 × 9 inch format encourages intimacy, allowing the reader to hold it close and comfortably. The text is accompanied by a modest fifty-one images, eighteen of which are in color, and most of them predictable choices. An illustration of Lewis’s lesser-known Central Park Lincoln (1872) is a useful addition to the visual documentation.

A consideration of Buick’s discussion of the Lincoln provides a window onto the multi-faceted analysis to which she submits all of Lewis’s work. Created while the sculptor was living in Rome, it consists of a bust of Lincoln measuring 39 1/2 inches high, supported by four figures resembling caryatids. Two female allegorical figures flank the front; one holds the Emancipation Proclamation. Two male figures bracket the rear corners: one a slave (based on her earlier Forever Free) and the other dressed in Zouave uniform complete with rifle. Identifying the figure not as a regulation Union soldier but rather as a Zouave, Lewis referenced not only the Zouaves who first fought in Algeria in the 1830s but also those who participated on both sides in the struggle over Italian independence. Buick argues convincingly for a parallel between Lincoln and the Italian leader Garibaldi, each of whom were heroized by Lewis, who linked them through the figures of African American slaves and North African Zouave. This is but one example of the complex layers of meaning Buick peels back, moving the work beyond issues of racial identity to situate it between the American Civil War and European politics. Buick also ties Lewis’s convictions about Garibaldi and unification to her Catholicism, the origins of which are (not surprisingly) also shrouded in mystery. This is another important dimension to introduce, for after 1876 she created work whose production and patronage were almost exclusively informed by her Catholicism.

Contained within Buick’s reinterpretation of Lewis is a critique of, or at least a dialogue with, the field of art history itself. She actually wrote, as she puts it, “two books that are mutually supporting and interdependent. One book comprises an examination of Lewis’s career. . . . The other book is a verbalization of the ongoing dialogue I had with art history while studying Lewis and more generally while studying ‘American’ and African American art historiography” (xiii–xiv). The lack of dialogue in art history is one of Buick’s issues, the complacent acceptance of certain points of view without discussion or dissent. This is something that is definitely missing these days; the lively debates and disputes that used to pepper conferences and Letters to the Editors are now replaced with more politically correct and neutral comments. In the pages of Child of the Fire, Buick raises the arguments of a broad array of scholars from American art and beyond. Barbara Groseclose, Leila Kinney, David Lubin, and Judith Wilson are just a few of the colleagues she verbally draws into sparring matches. I find this willingness to take on one’s predecessors a refreshing breath of fresh air. Art historians need to recapture some of this give and take, as we shape the field for a new century and a new generation of scholars.

Buick’s tightly orchestrated format yields some important results, but at times it also a priori limits the content. A more extended discussion of the events surrounding the display of The Death of Cleopatra at the Philadelphia Centennial might have supplemented discussion of Lewis’s relation to a national school of art. And the name of Charlotte Cushman is mentioned and dropped without elaboration of her support of the sculptor. But in the end these points are ancillary to the fact that Lewis emerges from these pages as one of the most fascinating American women of the nineteenth century. It is fitting that her sculpture—so long either marginalized or pigeonholed—should help generate a renewed dialogue on the methods and meanings of the field of American art history.

Katherine Manthorne
Professor, Art History Program, Graduate Center, City University of New York