Photography changes how we attract attention to ourselves

Jacquelyn Days Serwer

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Jacquelyn Days Serwer [ BIO ]

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Jacquelyn Days Serwer

Jacquelyn Days Serwer, chief curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), leads the curatorial team planning for NMAAHC’s opening exhibitions, and the development of its permanent collection. Prior to her current Smithsonian appointment, Serwer was chief curator at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and chief curator and curator of contemporary art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum during the 1980s and 1990s, where she produced numerous exhibition, catalogs, and essays.

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Jacquelyn Serwer, chief curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), looks at an early example of photographic self-promotion.

This carte-de-visite of the nineteenth-century American sculptor Edmonia Lewis presents the artist as cultivated, confident, and as that era’s version of a bohemian. Seated on the swivel chair, in ruffled dress, artist’s scarf at her neck, and tasseled beret on her head, she is the picture of the “artiste,” European-style. When the portrait was taken, Lewis was just back from Rome where she had ensconced herself several years earlier. Harriet Hosmer, the most famous of the female expatriate American sculptors resident in Rome, had helped Lewis find her first studio near the Spanish Steps, a space once occupied by the celebrated Italian sculptor, Antonio Canova. Later she moved to Via San Nicola da Tolentino, near Piazza Barberini, an area of the city favored by the American colony. Henry Rocher, one of Chicago’s most respected photographers, took the picture in his studio. Lewis had traveled to Chicago to promote herself and her work, and to sell a major marble sculpture of the biblical character, Hagar, slave and concubine to Hebrew patriarch Abraham, and mother of Ishmael. Lewis’ father was of African heritage, likely by way of Haiti, and her mother a Chippewa Indian. So as an American of mixed race (though surely this was not a term in circulation at the time), she could identify easily with the outsider status of her chosen subject.

Lewis’s life represented a succession of audacious moves, from her challenging years as a student at Oberlin College, to her ambitious plan to study art in Boston, and cultivate members of the abolitionist community there to further her prospects as a sculptor. At that time, only a few women of the most elite social class were in a position to pursue sculpture as a career. That Lewis selected this path during the volatile period right after the Civil War, despite her disadvantaged status as an orphan and a female of color, shows a stunning level of grit and determination. The plan to sell her sculpture in Chicago by attracting legions of paying visitors was simply a continuation of her daring mode of operation.

To ensure an audience for Hagar, Lewis knew she needed to create what we now would call “buzz,” by getting her name in the newspaper and drawing attention to her unusual profile. Photography played a central role in her self-promotion and marketing plan. At the time cartes-de-visite, small photographic prints mounted on cardboard, were mass produced and widely collected by a public fascinated by accomplishment, celebrities, and photographic novelties. This carte-de-visite with its striking portrait of the artist represented an important component of her media campaign. As the term carte-de-visite implies, it was her calling card—a way to insert herself and her image into the public sphere. In addition to the circulation of the photograph, Lewis placed an advertisement in the Chicago Tribune where she described herself as the “young and gifted Colored Sculptor of Rome, Italy.” Both adults and children were invited to view the sculpture on exhibit at Farwell Hall, a well-known convention space.

Thousands of visitors paid admission to see the sculpture and the artist. In the end, to cover her costs, Lewis sold subscriptions, or raffles, and Hagar went to the holder of the winning raffle ticket. Not only did the sculptor make money (the figure she gave was $6,000), she succeeded in making a name for herself that led to other exhibitions in San Francisco and, most importantly, her inclusion in the Fine Arts exhibition at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial.

Although several of Lewis’ sculptures were exhibited at the Centennial, it was The Dying Cleopatra, a monumental representation of the enthroned Egyptian queen with the poisonous asp at her breast, which drew the most attention. Featured in Memorial Hall, it was said by one critic to be “the most remarkable piece of sculpture in the American section.” In subsequent years it disappeared from view and suffered significant damage. More than a century later, Cleopatra resurfaced, and was acquired and restored by the Smithsonian American Art Museum where it remains on permanent view.

For a female artist of color in the nineteenth century to make her way through the prejudices, barriers, conventions and low expectations of the dominant society to an international level of recognition represents a remarkable accomplishment. The lovely Rocher photograph captures the requisite sense of self and image of steely resolve that made possible the illustrious career of this pint-sized sculptor (she was said to be no more than four feet tall!), marble carver and self-promoter. How fitting that the feisty Edmonia chose “Wildfire” as the loose translation of her Chippewa name.

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Edmonia Lewis by Henry Rocher
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  • Edmonia Lewis, c. 1870
  • Henry Rocher
Hagar by Edmonia Lewis
  • Hagar, 1875
  • Edmonia Lewis
The Death of Cleopatra by Edmonia Lewis
  • The Death of Cleopatra, 1876
  • Edmonia Lewis

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