|Antislavery token, 1838||Edmonia Lewis: The Morning of Liberty: Forever Free, 1867||John Quincy Adams Ward: The Freedman, 1863|
Ward made his sculpture before the constitutional amendment had been passed; Edmonia Lewis made hers after. In comparison with Ward’s, her male figure stands upright and the shackles are broken; the figure is, like the Freedman, a partial nude; the female figure, however, is more fully dressed, and kneels in the pose of the anti-slavery emblem. Although the hands appear to be in the same position in both the emblem and the sculpture, the slave in the token seems to be asking for help while Lewis' female figure seems grateful, to be giving thanks. Also unlike the figure in the token, the woman's body in Lewis's work is fully covered with her clothing. We can account for the presence of shackles in a few ways: if the work represents the morning of the emancipation proclamation (1863), then the figures have only just awakened to their freedom but haven't yet lived as free people. A second approach identifies the bondage of the slave with that of women, suggesting that she will never be as free as her male companion. The antislavery emblem, which originally used a male figure, had already been equated with gender "slavery" by abolitionist women, and Lewis may have been listening to their voices. The third interpretation refers to the fact that despite the passage of the Constitutional Amendment which abolished slavery in 1865, by 1867 social realities were such that African-Americans were not living the life of freedom that had been granted by the Constitution. Lewis, as one writer has suggested, may have been depicting the symbolic "reenslavement" of the African-American.
The racial characteristics of this
pair reflect the transition of the moment–although the male appears to have
African features, the female does not, and it is not really known why–what
is known is that Lewis made the group for white abolitionist patrons and
that she intended it as a tribute to a Boston abolitionist. It strikes
me, as well, that because the female figure in Lewis’s statue of Hagar looks
so similar, that both women may be intended as representations of the “tragic
mulatta,” and that Lewis’s statue, along with the abolitionist literature
of the 1850s, is also about sexual exploitation. Her female, rising
from her chains, will no longer be exploited by the plantation owner, either
as a slave or as a woman.
|Lewis: Hagar, 1875||(view from the side)|
Lewis, who experienced discrimination as a woman, an African-American, and a Chippewa, might have naturally been drawn to an image which could unite several forms of oppression in one figure. Hagar, the Egyptian woman who was sexually exploited by Abraham and then cast out by Sarah, the wife of Abraham, does not look defeated by her treatment or experience. Unlike the woman in Forever Free, Hagar stands boldly and confidently without any chains. Because her face is so similar to the face of the woman in Forever Free, it seems fair to wonder if she is another version of the same woman, no longer kneeling but standing to direct her own path out of the wilderness. Since both figures do suggest a family resemblance to the artist, one also has to wonder if the figure of Hagar may be intended as a surrogate for a female artist who generally made her way alone, and lived as an emigre in a foreign country.
|Thomas S. Noble: Margaret Garner (pencil drawing, 1867)|
In comparison with the reluctance of artists to portray slavery in pictures, as well as with the invention of new narratives to tell the story of female bondage, the outspoken boldness of Harriet Jacobs' autobiography appears to be all the more remarkable. Jacobs completed her written narrative in 1857. In 1861 it was published with the name of the editor on the cover and the name of the narrator of the autobiography, but not the name of the real author. In the voice of Linda Brent, Jacobs told three stories: the story of her awareness that she was a slave, the story of her eventual freedom, and the story of her refusal or failure to live by sexual standards which she believed but questioned. After successfully avoiding rape by her master, she later voluntarily enters a sexual union with someone she isn’t married to, and bears two children. The story of her sexual liaison is told in a more melodramatic style than the story of her escape to freedom, which is told without emotion. At the end of the book, though, she says she never achieved her dream--to live in a home with her children by her side. So despite being a story of the escape to freedom, it is a story of loss. But the union of these stories in the same book is unusual–although the melodramatic voice existed in fiction, it did not exist in autobiography. Perhaps without realizing what she was doing, Jacobs joined the abolitionist story of the “tragic mulatta” to the slave autobiography, creating a new genre, as it were, and a new heroine.
Although her narrative is not the only
extant slave narrative, it is rather unique in the emphasis it gives to her
sexual experiences, her feelings of shame, and her attempt to explain them.
In many respects, the experiences of sexual harassment, sexual engagement
and childbearing form a direct parallel to the experience of enslavement
and the search for freedom. If these experiences had not been
true, we might see them as metaphorical inverses of one another.
But they are not metaphors; they were lived experiences, a factor which makes
it all the more remarkable that Jacobs wrote it down. The natural instinct
after trauma and degradation is silence; speaking is a way of asserting power
over the degrading acts, giving them a name and demythologizing them.
Jacobs’ autobiography, in that sense, serves two purposes just as it told
two stories: it became a voice for abolition and it liberated her to embrace
her identity as both a mother and a free woman, making her, oddly enough,
a precursor of the radically disconcerting art of Kara Walker, whose work
we briefly looked at in the beginning of the semester.
Walker: Darkytown Rebellion, 2001 (projection, cut paper, adhesive,
14' x 37½')
|Hiram Powers: The Greek Slave, 1843-6||Erastus Palmer: The White Captive, 1859||Harriet Hosmer: Zenobia in Chains, 1859|
In order to understand the impact of
these sculptures, we need to understand the viewing context of the 19th century.
An important part of this context was the fact that artists and/or critics
generally provided viewers with written instructions or guides telling them
what the story behind the work was and suggesting the appropriate response
to make to the art work. When Hiram Powers made his Greek Slave,
and suggested that the story was based on the capture of a Christian Greek
woman by barbarous Turks, he gave his audience a nude woman, modestly covering
her sex, helpless because of the chains, her face turned to the side to enhance
her sense of modesty and vulnerability, with a cross hanging from her clothing
to suggest her faith in God. Powers managed to bring together a subversive
interest in pornography, the morally righteous indignation of a country which
identified with other countries fighting for independence, and the vulnerable
eroticism of the classical Greek nude.
Powers’ Greek Slave was not the only statue to exploit this ability of sculpture to suggest more than the viewer could actually see and to arouse feelings which might normally be repressed in the guise of a narrative which ultimately bestows honor on them. Palmer's White Captive is clearly based on Powers' statue, despite the greater sense of naturalism and the implication that she has been captured by Indians. Even Hosmer seems to have had Powers in mind when she made her own statue.
|portrait of Harriet Hosmer (painting by unknown artist)||Medusa, 1854|
Hosmer was financially secure, had
patrons who were also friends, and could choose subjects of interest to herself.
The subjects she chose were usually mythological or romantic heroines, although
these heroines were victims. When the subject is someone who also has
a demonic side, such as Medusa, Hosmer generally chose the moment of defeat,
the moment when Medusa was being transformed from a beautiful woman into
a woman with snakes writhing around her head and breasts, still touched with
the aura of desirability but knowing that it is rapidly leaving her.
The story continues with Medusa becoming capable of destroying men; we don’t
see that here but if we know the story, we can imagine the eventually complete
transformation. To the extent that viewers were captivated by the head,
then Medusa had already begun to be a woman of dreaded power. We might
wonder if Hosmer was making an ironic pun--Medusa, here depicted in marble
by a female sculptor, was capable of turning men to stone.
|Beatrice Cenci, 1854||Oenone, 1855|
Oenone, the daughter of the
river god, was married to Paris. When Paris deserted her for Helen of
Troy, Oenone dreamt of her revenge against him and Troy. She did achieve
her goal, but threw herself onto Paris's funeral pyre, ultimately dying with
him. In Hosmer's sculpture, which moment is it that we see? The
desolate woman who has been abandoned? Or the woman who contemplates
both her revenge and her eventual suicide? Hosmer doesn't tell us and
she doesn't show us Oenone's face, so we can only guess. But by leaving
it to us, Hosmer gives Oenone greater power than that of a victim.
Beatrice Cenci is a subject which seems to move Hosmer closer to the subject of the captive. Sexually abused and imprisoned by her father, Beatrice eventually murdered him, an act for which she paid with her life. When Hosmer chose to make Beatrice her subject, she decided to show her sleeping, surely at her most vulnerable. Her flowing robe certainly reveals the body underneath but her body is modestly arranged and to the extent that her flesh is visible, it can be excused by the fact that she was asleep. The position, in fact, with the somewhat awry dress, serves to enhance her vulnerability, fragility and innocence. Although she is sleeping on stone, a sign of her imprisonment, it is not difficult to imagine that she has swooned, is unconscious and will never awaken.
Hosmer’s largest statue, her most complete
confrontation with the issue of captivity and power, was Zenobia.
Zenobia was Queen of Palmyra for six years after her husband died. She
led her country in war against imperial Rome but was defeated. Rather
than surrendering, she eluded capture for a while. Eventually the Romans
caught her and forced her to march through the city in chains. Although
the Romans executed her counselors, her life was spared. Well before
Hosmer tackled her subject, Zenobia had been a woman of mystery–her true
ancestry was debated (was she an Egyptian, related to Cleopatra), the extent
to which she might have bargained for her own life by giving up her counselors
was not known, or did she, like Cleopatra, use sex to save herself.
Although Powers’ Greek Slave is the statue to which Hosmer seems to be responding, the first decision she makes immediately sets Zenobia apart. The Greek slave is nude and the chains reinforce her vulnerability. Zenobia is also chained but in contrast to the stories which described her chains as so heavy that servants had to carry them, she lifts them with one hand. Wearing a long dress and cloak, she conveys an image of strength and solidity. She is regal in her bearing, not vulnerable as the chains might lead us to suspect. She redefines the nature of imprisonment as a test which she must overcome in order to remain in control of her destiny.
In some respects, it wasn’t only Zenobia who redefined the meaning of imprisonment. Harriet Hosmer did also and she did in a way which suggests the union of the familiar and popular captivity narrative with a new one: triumph over adversity. Generally a melodramatic and sentimental story, which will be very popular with women, it might also be understood in a less literal way: the conditions of womanhood (the female sphere of life) were inherently adversarial for the strong woman. Living her life as a successful artist was a triumph over adversity; if we see the narrative of Zenobia in that light, then we can only see Hosmer's choice of subject as a radical decision.