Mary Edmonia Lewis's Hagar and the Promise of Salvation
My thesis focuses on Mary Edmonia Lewis’s (1844-1907) marble statue, Hagar (1868), which she created while living in Rome and likely once she had converted to Catholicism. The fully clothed, standing, white marble woman clasps her hands together as she gazes upwards to God; her brow furrows and reveals her ultimately deemed Caucasian features. Hagar was the handmaid and slave of Abraham’s wife, Sarah, from the Old Testament. The biblical figure was seen by God in all her hurt and bitterness, and all the unfairness of her life and rewarded for her survival. Artists have long represented Hagar as an enslaved person, a sexual abuse survivor, and a foreigner. As a Black and Indigenous female sculptor, Lewis took a different approach. Her sculpture, which was created in Rome underscores Hagar’s connection with God rather than her relationships with men. Whereas other scholars have read the work as a metaphor for abolitionist sentiments, I reveal the ways in which Lewis sought to prioritize spiritual salvation versus terrestrial deliverance. Chapter One of my thesis locates Lewis’s Hagar in the broader art historical canon to reveal that Lewis’s depiction is more pious and isolated than prior depictions. Lewis isolates Hagar to draw attention to Hagar’s direct connection to God and her biblical importance. The chapter also investigates praying iconography and its association with the anti-slavery movement. In doing so, Lewis is emphasizing a connection between God and salvation, specifically through supplication. The second chapter argues that Lewis depicted Hagar as White in white marble to represent Godliness. Lewis’s Hagar sculpture is often perceived as Caucasian while Hagar was biblically and historically recognized as Black; reading the work in relation to other neoclassical sculptures, especially Hiram Powers (1805-1873) The Greek Slave (1844), the chapter explains how the subject’s race and the artist’s choice of material furthered the sculpture’s spiritual message.This thesis argues against analyzing Lewis’s sculptures with exclusively a racial or biographical lens and rather offers a more nuanced interpretation of Lewis’s use of religious themes in her all of her work. By forefronting Lewis’s Christianity, which is so obviously prevalent in Hagar’s iconography, the thesis sets an example of how fellow scholars can understand and interpret African American Christianity in other artists from the period’s work.