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The Color of Stone: Sculpting the Black Female Subject in Nineteenth-Century America

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How do we see race when the color of skin is stone? Nineteenth-century neoclassical sculpture was a highly politicized international movement. Based at Rome, many expatriate American sculptors created works that represented black female subjects in compelling and problematic ways. Rejecting pigment as dangerous and sensual, adherence to white marble abandoned the racialization of the black body by skin color.

In The Color of Stone, Charmaine A. Nelson brilliantly analyzes a key, but often neglected, aspect of neoclassical sculpture, color. Considering three major works, “Hiram Powers’s Greek Slave, William Wetmore Story’s Cleopatra, and Edmonia Lewis’s Death of Cleopatra”she explores the intersection of race, sex, and class to reveal the meanings each work holds in terms of colonial histories of visual representation as well as issues of artistic production, identity, and subjectivity. She also juxtaposes these sculptures with other types of art to scrutinize prevalent racial discourses and to examine how the black female subject was made visible in high art.

By establishing the centrality of race within the discussion of neoclassical sculpture, Nelson provides a model for a black feminist art history that at once questions and destabilizes canonical texts.

In The Color of Stone, the fields of art history, feminist theory, postcolonial theory, and critical race theory are brought into new and mutually fruitful dialogue with one another. Charmaine Nelson has not just broken new ground; her study is an intellectual watershed.
Judith Wilson, Independent Scholar, Irvine, California

The Color of Stone Nelson explains how the material reality of black bodies brutalized by slavery is connected to the aesthetics of 19th-century neo-classical sculpture and how white marble’s high currency emerges. Nelson shows how white marble possesses a symbolic value as well as an economic one, and how it gradually becomes conflated with purity and beauty through excluding black and white (classed) bodies. In a fascinating discussion, Nelson shapes the significance of [Edmonia] Lewis’s story with passionate scholarship that both academics and general readers can enjoy.
Cy-Thea Sand, Herizons

The introduction of The Color of Stone “would be invaluable reading in methodology seminars in both art history and Women’s Studies departments, as well as in advanced courses on nineteenth-century art, feminism and art history, and gender, race, and representation.
Elizabeth Adan, Feminist Formations

Evidently there exists little biographical information on nineteenth century sculptor Edmonia Lewis. Charmaine A. Nelson, of McGill University in Montreal, used this to her advantage. The scholar let her search for data bring forth a broader examination of the politics of nineteenth-century neoclassical sculpture, its aesthetics of gender and beauty, and its racial discourse. When a Hollywood movie is made of Edmonia Lewis’ working life and struggle in Rome’s bubbling, competitive art world, Charmaine A. Nelson’s valuable book will further be a resource.
– Michael R. Mosher, Leonardo Reviews Online

In order to critique the inherent ‘whiteness’ of both the players (neoclassical artists) and their medium (white marble), Nelson foregrounds the black female body as a sculptural subject, and adroitly pieces together a mostly uncharted narrative. In doing so, she taps an array of rare and unpublished primary source documents that detail the lives and works of American neoclassical sculptors abroad. Without question, The Color of Stone is an exceptionally well-researched text; and its premise is an intriguing one, to say the least.
– Lisa E. Farrington, Women’s Art Journal

Nelson has opened up new ways of looking at Neoclassical sculpture and introduced creative avenues for thinking about its powerful cultural meanings. In so doing, she has provided a great service to American art historians.
Melissa Dabakis, CAA.Reviews

Charmaine Nelson’s The Color of Stone is a fascinating contribution to nineteenth-century African American stuides and to art history broadly…Nelson offers not only a detailed visual analysis but also careful archival study that alerts readers to issues of conception and composition. Nelson’s anaysis in articluating this complex geneaology is consistently rich – considering race and gender in a deeply intertwined dialogue and beginning to actively factor in class, location, and sexuality…future work will certainly have to address the riches offered by both Nelson’s cross-disciplinary sense and her important recovery work, especially that surrounding Edmonia Lewis.
– Eric Gardner, African American Review

Cite this book: Charmaine A. Nelson, The Color of Stone: Sculpting the Black Female Subject in Nineteenth-Century America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007)