- The Color of Stone: Sculpting the Black Female Subject in Nineteenth-Century America
Charmaine Nelson's The Color of Stone is a fascinating contribution to nineteenth-century African American studies and to art history broadly. Though it has some flaws, her work uses a richly interdisciplinary approach to offer innovative and deeply contextualized interpretations of Hiram Powers's The Greek Slave, William Wetmore Story's Cleopatra, Edmonia Lewis's Death of Cleopatra, and also Lewis's Hagar. In considering each of these works—as well as a host of other key pieces ranging from Powers's America to John Gibson's Tinted Venus to John Quincy Adams Ward's The Freedman—she carefully examines subjects of color vis-à-vis "the always already white marble of neoclassicism," which "produced the normative racial body as the white body, which was symbolically associated with purity, morality, and truth and, although present, never needed to be named" (183).
Nelson does this through active comparative analysis (supported by numerous illustrations) that reaches far beyond sculpture and through consideration of issues ranging from the nineteenth-century pseudoscience surrounding race to the comments of Hawthorne and Henry James on Italy's communities of expatriate American artists, and from the place(s) of black travelers (versus white tourists) to the importance of Story's friendship with Charles Sumner. Nelson's careful attempts to place Lewis among American expatriate artists—and especially among the "flock" of women artists in Rome—in her first main chapter and beyond are of great value, as biographical work on Lewis is still limited. (Nelson's conclusion rightly reminds us that, until we know more about Lewis's later life, our comments on her oeuvre may not be accurate.) Nelson also significantly complicates earlier critics' assertions that Lewis found clear supporters in Lydia Maria Child and Charlotte Cushman, and in an all-too-brief discussion, she argues that early black physician Sarah Parker Remond may have been a "strong female role model of professionalism, independence, and education" for Lewis (167). [End Page 188]
In considering the central works themselves, Nelson offers not only detailed visual analysis but also careful archival study that alerts readers to issues of conception and composition. Especially important is Nelson's attention to issues of reception—which includes discussion of everything from the short written guides that were often paired with exhibitions to comments made by viewers. Because one of the organizing forces in Nelson's analysis is chronology—Powers's first version of The Greek Slave dates from the early 1840s (though he did several later and different versions), Story's Cleopatra was conceived in the late 1850s (but had a notable postbellum life), and Lewis's Cleopatra and Hagar were both cast in marble and exhibited in 1875 (though she seems to have experimented with images of Hagar earlier)—this consideration of reception allows us a richer understanding of how, for example, Powers's subsequent versions of The Greek Slave addressed the changing politics of the world and the sculptor. In another example, we see how Lewis both responded to, and with striking individuality, veered from traits of the earlier works. Nelson's analysis in articulating this complex genealogy is consistently rich—considering race and gender in a deeply intertwined dialogue and beginning to actively factor in class, location, and sexuality.
Nelson's richly textured effort thus certainly continues and expands upon the exciting cultural studies work tied to African Americans and nineteenth-century art embodied in landmark texts like Kirk Savage's Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves (1997) and Michael Harris's Colored Pictures (2003). That said, a group of factors stop The Color of Stone from being a model work.
The introduction's dense and long foray into psychoanalytic theory is neither connected to most of the rest of the book nor especially accessible. Some readers will also ask—quite rightly—whether any form of liberatory black feminist art history (or cultural studies generally) can or should rely so heavily on the jargon-filled...