Resculpting Colonialism

Art historian Charmaine Nelson uncovers neoclassical sculpture’s hidden history of race and sex.

By Christopher DeWolf

There she stands: naked, hands chained, head turned mournfully to the side, her skin marble white. The Greek Slave (circa 1843), American sculptor Hiram Powers’s portrayal of a young woman taken hostage by Turks, was a potent anti-slavery symbol in an era when abolitionism was gaining fervour.

But how exactly did a statue of a white European woman come to represent the face of the international slave trade—which, of course, primarily exploited black Africans? The answer can be found in the intersection between race, politics and the neoclassical sculpture of the 19th century, something that Charmaine Nelson, associate professor of Art History, explores in her new book, The Color of Stone: Sculpting the Black Female Subject in Nineteenth-Century America (published by the University of Minnesota Press). Nelson uses three major works produced in Italy by American sculptors—William Wetmore Story’s Cleopatra (1862), Mary Edmonia Lewis’s The Death of Cleopatra (1875) and Powers’s The Greek Slave—to examine the treatment of race by an artistic movement that explicitly rejected the use of pigment.

Charmaine Nelson explores the connections between the history of slavery and our attitudes today. Credit: Catherine Farquharson
Charmaine Nelson explores the connections between the history of slavery and our attitudes today. Credit: Catherine Farquharson
The Greek Slave was America’s first publicly exhibited, life-size sculpture of a nude human figure—a scandalous milestone, given the prevailing moral winds of mid-19th-century America, that made headlines across the nation. “But there was an elaborate narrative to enable this nudity,” Nelson notes. “The slave’s clothing is wrapped around the pedestal, but there’s also a locket and cross. The cross says she’s a good girl and the locket implies she’s betrothed, she’s a virgin, she’s going to be a good wife one day. She’s been stripped against her will.

“Powers sculpts the slave as this woman who was captured by the Turks, so he inverts the colonial relationship. The white people are the good guys and the brown people are the bad guys.”

Nelson takes a broad, interdisciplinary view of the neoclassical movement, using black feminist theory to rethink art history. She exposes some of the historical realities etched into the stone of The Greek Slave, like the fact that it took a portrayal of a white female slave—“Thou saddest relic of thy god-like race,” as one 1847 poem described her—to win sympathy for the cause of abolition.

“We can’t talk about an art object without asking who made it,” she says. “We need to start looking at art as part of a colonial discourse. The artists are part and parcel of their society. They’re not operating in vacuums: they’re helping to produce these discourses. They are also culpable for the perpetuation of colonialism and racism in their societies.

“Art history is really problematic in that, in the humanities, it’s one of the slowest fields to embrace postcolonial methodologies. You still get people who are like, ‘Okay, back up, let’s go back to Race 101, why do we need to talk about this in art history?’ I feel like I’m always having to explain why I want to talk about race. Yet it’s so obvious to me that this needs to be part of the discussion.”

For her current research, Nelson is turning away from sculpture, but her motives are the same. She just completed a one-year research fellowship at Britain’s National Maritime Museum, where she looked closely at marine landscape paintings by military artists, many of them Canadian.

“Maritime landscapes have been dealt with before, but in really formalistic, aesthetic ways: line and colour, the sky is stormy, blah blah blah,” she says. “But there are paintings of Montreal’s port and Halifax Harbour which depict ships carrying rum or sugar cane or pineapples—or slaves—that are coming from Caribbean plantations. I want to look at what is being represented in terms of trade and colonialization, who these artists were and why they were painting these scenes. None of these beautiful paintings of ships is innocent.”

Charmaine Nelson’s research is funded by the Fonds québécois de la recherche sur la nature et les technologies and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

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