Child of the Fire

Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History’s Black and Indian Subject

Child of the Fire

Book Pages: 344 Illustrations: 51 illustrations, incl. 18 in color Published: February 2010

Author: Buick, Kirsten

American Studies, Art and Visual Culture > Art History, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies

Child of the Fire is the first book-length examination of the career of the nineteenth-century artist Mary Edmonia Lewis, best known for her sculptures inspired by historical and biblical themes. Throughout this richly illustrated study, Kirsten Pai Buick investigates how Lewis and her work were perceived, and their meanings manipulated, by others and the sculptor herself. She argues against the racialist art discourse that has long cast Lewis’s sculptures as reflections of her identity as an African American and Native American woman who lived most of her life abroad. Instead, by seeking to reveal Lewis’s intentions through analyses of her career and artwork, Buick illuminates Lewis’s fraught but active participation in the creation of a distinct “American” national art, one dominated by themes of indigeneity, sentimentality, gender, and race. In so doing, she shows that the sculptor variously complicated and facilitated the dominant ideologies of the vanishing American (the notion that Native Americans were a dying race), sentimentality, and true womanhood.

Buick considers the institutions and people that supported Lewis’s career—including Oberlin College, abolitionists in Boston, and American expatriates in Italy—and she explores how their agendas affected the way they perceived and described the artist. Analyzing four of Lewis’s most popular sculptures, each created between 1866 and 1876, Buick discusses interpretations of Hiawatha in terms of the cultural impact of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha; Forever Free and Hagar in the Wilderness in light of art historians’ assumptions that artworks created by African American artists necessarily reflect African American themes; and The Death of Cleopatra in relation to broader problems of reading art as a reflection of identity.


“In this groundbreaking text, Pai Buick does a remarkable job framing the problematized history of ‘African Americaness’ and ‘Native Americaness’ in, both, ‘American’ (to be read: ‘Anglo-American’) art criticism and popular culture. From the sparse and limited literature on or about Edmonia Lewis to the reoccurring ethnocentric ‘reading’ (cum interpretation) of her life and work, Kirsten Pai Buick’s thoughtfully researched text problematizes traditional art history scholarship that would position Edmonia Lewis between either/or binary extremes of ‘exotic/subversive, [or] black or Indian’ (xvi).” — Kimmika L. H. Williams-Witherspoon, Consciousness, Literature and the Arts

“Rich in testimony to Lewis' impressive achievements as a ‘facile manipulator of marble and white patrons,’ Buick's rigorously argued and refreshingly forthright inquiry articulates the challenges inherent in the sculptures of an enigmatic, determined, and courageous American artist.” — Donna Seaman, Booklist

“[A] thoughtful, groundbreaking study that should be a must-read for anyone interested in art of the United States and in a nuanced treatment of race, ethnicity, and gender.” — Katherine Manthorne, CAA Reviews

“Doing justice to the subject of Edmonia Lewis may be beyond the knowledge of any single scholar, as studying her ‘differences’ and the ways in which she was cast as anomalous requires one to search a myriad of shifting databases and intervene in the interstices of archives. Speaking generally, however, this book goes a long way toward providing a model of responsive, responsible art history.” — Jennifer DeVere Brody, Women's Review of Books

“[T]his fiercely intellectual study offers insightful, original readings of Edmonia Lewis's art. Buick gives these intriguing sculptures the serious attention they have long deserved.” — Laura R. Prieto, Women and Social Movements in the United States 1600-2000

“Buick provides the most comprehensive history of Lewis to date and a critical assessment of the discipline through close readings of primary sources and the leading scholarship on Lewis. . . . This volume is a crucial model for multiple disciplines. Essential. Lower-level undergraduates and above; general readers.” — K. N. Pinder, Choice

“Buick’s book is groundbreaking in its reinterpretation of Lewis and her art. . . . Child of the Fire is a significant book because it reminds us to consider cultural context over simpler readings that merge racial and gender identity with interpretation of an artist’s work.” — Renée Ater, American Indian Culture and Research Journal

“In revisiting and revising the examination of Lewis and her art, Buick challenges earlier interpretations and sheds new light on Lewis and adds to the scholarship.... Buick concludes with a persuasive call for a more ‘responsive and responsible art history’… [Her] Child of the Fire helps move us forward.” — Margaret Rose Vendryes, Journal of African American History

“This book is so tantalizing because, as Buick herself concludes, Lewis remains an enigma. . . . Despite the difficulties presented by the lack of archival materials, the quality of this study presents a challenge to art historians to avoid ‘conversing with stereotype’ by doing our cultural and contextual homework.” — Jennifer Wingate, Woman's Art Journal

Child of the Fire is a tour de force. Kirsten Pai Buick has written a brilliant, historically and culturally grounded investigation into one of the most fascinating people of the nineteenth century. Despite the challenge of a subject as elusive and enigmatic as Mary Edmonia Lewis, Buick brings Lewis’s work back where it belongs: into the fold of nineteenth-century American art, albeit from the vantage point of a knowing, African American, female, expatriate, Catholic iconoclast.” — Richard J. Powell, author of Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture

Child of the Fire marks a dramatic change in how scholars approach artists marginalized by race, ethnicity, or gender. In the field of American art, most studies of such artists have assumed that their art directly expresses or reflects their racial, ethnic, and gender identities, usually understood in terms of late-twentieth-century identity politics. While these heroic narratives of self-expression and cultural resistance are a necessary first step in recovering such artists from oblivion, the time has come for a more sophisticated analysis of how these artists actually worked and what they achieved. Kirsten Pai Buick provides that.” — Kirk Savage, author of Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Kirsten Pai Buick is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of New Mexico.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Illustrations xi

Preface. Framing the Problem: American Africanisms, American Indianisms, and the Processes of Art History xiii

Acknowledgments xxiii

1. Inventing the Artist: Locating the Black and Catholic Subject 1

2. The "Problem" of Art History's Black Subject 31

3. Longellow, Lewis, and the Cultural Work of Hiawatha 77

4. Identity, Tautology, and The Death of Cleopatra 133

Conclusion. Separate and Unequal: Toward a More Responsive and Responsible Art History 209

Notes 215

Bibliography 257

Index 277
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4266-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4247-2
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