The Death of Cleopatra

Edmonia Lewis, The Death of Cleopatra, 1876, marble. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC. Image credit: SAAM.

The Death of Cleopatra was Edmonia Lewis’ most ambitious project: A large marble sculpture (weighing almost 3 tons), completed for the 1876 Centennial exhibition in Philadelphia. I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out what to say about this sculpture, and I am currently working on a scholarly essay. I will sum it up here when it’s done, but for now, here is a video to give you a start. If it sounds a bit like a student presentation, that’s because it started out as one (I gave it in the fall of 2020 in a class in an American Art survey). I no longer agree with some of the things I say here about the “meaning” of the sculpture–in particular, I no longer believe that Lewis’ sculpture is so very different from other Cleopatras of her time. In fact, for the essay I am writing, I focus on why it is that Lewis deliberately created a sculpture that does *not* stand out. (Side note: Recalibrating your thinking is one of the most important and most exhausting parts of doing academic research.) But the video is still accurate on the fact; it gives you the basics about the Death of Cleopatra, and then a bit more.

If you are interested in the fascinating afterlife of the Death of Cleopatra, several links in part 2 of the resource section lead to news articles and podcasts that tell its “lost and found” story, and how it ended up in the storage shed of a mall in Illinois in the late 1980s. It had sat for many years in wind and weather, and if you study the high-resolution images the Smithsonian American Art Museum provides up close, you can see the weather damage that has destroyed what would have once been a highly polished marble surface.

Your Turn

I am curious: I usually write blogs and feel awkward about “vlogs” or video presentations. Did you like the short overview in video form? What are the advantages and disadvantages of a written blog post as opposed to a video presentation like this? Do you have a preference?
(Disclaimer: this is not a professionally produced video! It was intentionally made with simple tools that are widely available: a slide show with a–slightly angsty–voiceover, which could be recorded with any simple recording software. I used Zoom’s screen sharing and video recording function, but there are many free applications that work the same way. I apologize I did not include CC captioning. I am still learning.)