Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 5, 2023
Caitlin Meehye Beach Sculpture at the Ends of Slavery Oakland: University of California Press, 2022. 240 pp.; 74 color ills.; 14 b/w ills. $60.00 (9780520343269)

Not since Kirk Savage’s Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monuments in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton University Press, 1994) and Freeman Murray’s germinal text Emancipation and the Freed in American Sculpture: A Study in Interpretation (Press of Murray Brothers, 1916) has a scholar so adeptly and rigorously tackled the relationships between race, enslavement, and sculpture as does Caitlin Beach in Sculpture at the End of Slavery. The book’s table of contents gives early indication of the geographically expansive and historically rich terrain through which Beach navigates. Each chapter is anchored by the work of a singular artist, which the author frames within a “larger ecosystem of labor, production, consumption and reception” (14). In so doing, she highlights the ways in which racial capitalism in the United States and abroad influenced the creation, display, and reception of sculptures that took slavery and emancipation as themes. Beach questions the material possibilities for sculpture to engage in a critique of slavery while exposing the limitations of the medium to escape the ravages of global racial capitalism, which engendered a particular regime of value that constituted objects and human beings as commodities.

Beach clearly lays out her art historical investment and the book’s through line when she begins the introduction by offering a critical question, “Can an image incite change?” (1). Since 2016, Americans and Western Europeans have demonstrated a renewed interest in public statuary, specifically Confederate monuments and monuments to enslavers, while questioning the role of these works in historic and contemporary race relations. Yet, Beach reminds us that some of our most thought-provoking works related to the transatlantic history of slavery reside in the halls of our most coveted institutions of fine art. By incorporating a cultural analysis of sculpture’s materialities as well as cotton factorage houses, artists’ studios, foundries, industrial manufactories, and fairs, among other institutions, Beach’s study breathes fresh air into canonical works and brings to the forefront sculpture’s many intersections with labor, commerce, entertainment, and human rights.

In chapter one, “Grasping Images: Antislavery and the Sculptural,” Beach petitions for the centrality of object-centered analysis in the study of the antislavery movement. In a surprising, yet welcome, turn this chapter does not include ruminations on any particular sculpture, but instead focuses on the affect of sculptural elements in two-dimensional objects, chiefly through the use of relief in Josiah Wedgewood’s “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” medallion (1787) and architectural space and design in the engraved Description of a Slave Ship (1789) broadside. Through these examples, Beach explicates how two-dimensional objects can elicit a visceral empathy engendered by an engagement with haptic sensation or what sculptural theorists have called a “kinesthetic experience.” This experience, although typically reserved for sculpture, heightens an object’s sense of verisimilitude or realism, affording the beholder access to a perceived higher truth about the subject that optic vision alone cannot provide. This chapter highlights the paradoxical nature of antislavery representations, which attempt to evoke a sense of the real, rely on a “visual vocabulary of racism” (32) and are produced for a consumer market. In doing so, Beach argues that the production, circulation, and consumption of these objects by the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade replicated and simulated practices of enslavement which depended heavily on one’s ability to “conceptually and physically surveil and possess” (13) in contradiction to the society’s liberatory goals.

Because Beach aptly engages with the paragone debates, the brevity of this chapter leaves the reader wanting more. Here, I believe a comparative examination of sculpture’s longtime foil—painting—is warranted. As theorist Robert Vance’s has argued, the illusionistic character of painting is also rooted in its three-dimensionality and therefore too evokes kinesthetic experience. With the number of images in painting that represented slavery in the transatlantic visual economy a more thorough examination of the medial differences between painting and sculpture in relationship to slavery and abolition would help delineate their respective capacity to constitute racial difference and elicit emotional sentiment.

In chapter two, “‘The Mute Language of the Marble’: Slavery and Hiram Powers’s The Greek Slave,” Beach offers a new perspective on perhaps the most canonical sculpture in American art, demonstrating that works like it have a wealth of knowledge still yet to be extracted. Her examination of Powers’s sculpture provides us with previously unpublished sketches and artist descriptions which illuminates a considerable degree of authorship and intentionality by Powers in his early designs. Notably, Beach introduces an 1841 drawing of The Greek Slave absent of any signifiers of slavery. Over the course of two and a half decades, Powers’s changes to the sculpture and his use of marble highlighted the subject’s status as an enslaved white woman. One could assume that Powers’s efforts to bolster the work’s association with slavery demonstrated his desire for the work to express or embody antislavery rhetoric. However, as Beach argues, the work’s patronage, sites of display, and intention to be sold, are visceral examples of the entangled economies of sculpture and slavery. Regarding the work’s materiality, Beach reminds us of marble’s non-neutrality explaining that in neoclassical sculpture the material is “inextricable from dominate racial hierarchies” in the Western world (46). Moreover, her assessment of The Greek Slave’s whiteness in marble and skin tone, its proximity to slave auction blocks in the antebellum south, and the concerted efforts to realize the work’s animacy all helped reinscribe color lines, shifting the focus of liberation from enslaved Black men and women, towards the protection of white womanhood. By detailing Powers’s efforts to exaggerate the statue’s lifelike character and to foster the audience’s reception of the work as such, Beach aptly explains the pervasive intersection of racial capitalism and artistic production both of which treat objects and corporeal bodies as fungible entities.

While chapter two speaks to the passivity of marble to critique slavery, three on “Sentiment Manufactured: John Bell and the Abolitionist Image under Empire,” foregrounds the British sculptor and the affective power of bronze and mixed materials to render a Black person as a sentimental subject. Through his renowned, A Daughter of Eve (American Slave) (ca. 1862), Bell engages in what Beach terms “manufactured sentiment” (79) whereby the sculptor disrupted previous sculptural paradigms materially and technologically to enhance his abolitionist message and lay the moral and ethical quandary presented by slavery bare. To do so, however, Bell constituted a “simulation of slavery’s material structures of commodification” (98) by his use of bronze to activate sensations of Black flesh, piercing the subject’s ears with gold earrings (a marker of enslavement typical for Black women), and the use of real silver for the chains imported from Mexican silver mines which still relied Black and Indigenous exploitation. This entanglement with the material realities of slavery were only deepened by the work’s display alongside other luxury goods for purchase in spaces and exhibitions designed to laud the progress and modernity of British industry which presented grave implications for the work’s antislavery message. In addition, Beach again demonstrates that the modes of display cannot be discounted from our accounting of racial statuary. As she points out, A Daughter of Eve, not dissimilar from The Greek of Slave, “reenacted the speculative modes of looking associated with the buying and selling of people at slave markets and auctions” while heightening the practice of “racialized looking” (99–100).

Beach’s penultimate chapter, “Relief Work: Edmonia Lewis and the Poetics of Plaster,” is powerful in its approach and demonstrable of the small yet impactful material turn in American sculpture scholarship largely initiated by Charmaine Nelson. Beach contributes to this effort by expanding our understanding of “racial materialities” and the relationships among representations of enslavement, object agency, and Black citizenship in nineteenth-century material culture. Expanding on the pivotal work of Kirsten Buick, Beach dedicates this chapter to Edmonia Lewis. While Lewis’s biography and oeuvre have often been framed in relationship to white abolitionists and their patronage of her work, Beach offers a reassessment of Lewis’s authorship and agency. She does so by locating the sculptor’s work within Black activist circles—particularly Black female activist, patrons, and entrepreneurs—and by centering her investigation around some of Lewis’s lesser discussed works and their circulation in Black abolitionist papers, and Black-led relief efforts at soldier’s fairs during the Civil War. In particular, the author’s examination of the now-lost tabletop statuette of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry’s Black officer, Sergeant, William H. Carney (1840–1908), and a marble bust of the unit’s white commander, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (1837–1863), offers a counter narrative regarding the “incommensurability of sculpture as both consumable commodity and antislavery emblem” (116) established in the previous chapters. She does so by making a strong case for a renewed examination of sculptural materials outside of the canonical bronze and marble. Her read of and methodological approach to plaster offers an analysis that attends to the material’s multiple biographies by entangling its haptic potency in relation to the sculptor’s touch, its restorative resonance as a medical material during the Civil War, and its relation to homemade handicraft. Her interpretation of the Carney statuette suggests its subject, design, spaces of display, and material contributed to Lewis’s and the work’s ability to exercise a poetics of care. Within the economic context of aiding war relief efforts, Beach suggests Lewis’s works are examples of the ways in which antislavery sculpture maintains the capacity to work with and against “dominant social, commercial and political realities of the day” (140).

Beach concludes her book by attending to its title most directly, questioning sculpture’s ability to portray slavery’s end and constitute Black freedom in three dimensions. Chapter five, “Between Liberty and Emancipation,” centers on Italian sculptor, Francesco Pezzicar’s The Abolition of Slavery in the United States, 1863 (1873) and his aims to create a global, pronounced commemoration of freedom destined for sale at the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition held in Philadelphia. Like John Bell in A Daughter of Eve and others, Pezzicar took advantage of bronze’s developing universality as well as its mutability and manipulability regarding its color and texture, to heighten his work’s reality affect. Yet, as Beach shows here and in other chapters, appeals to universalism and realism, particularly through anonymous racialized sculptural subjects, have profound implications on how those subjects operate in culture. While radical in its departure from pervasive Western sculptural aesthetics that framed Black liberty through its indebtedness to white America, Beach maintains that The Abolition of Slavery inculcated the liminality of the Black subject in sculpture whose identity was constituted only through a narration of slavery and abolition. In this way, sculpture that depicts emancipation exists as a body enraptured in an unfolding event that never reaches maturation wherein Blackness is a continual and contingent state of becoming. The statue’s inability to resonate with American audiences evident in Pezzicar’s failure to sell the work spoke to the ways in which Americans’ relationship with freedom or Black emancipation remained rooted in its deliverance by white statesmen and activists. Beach turns to the scholars of the Black radical tradition to highlight the ways in which slavery’s end and freedom’s beginning for Black people in America did not happen at a singular moment, it was not the result of a singular event, and no one body could stand as representative. Freedom’s visuality, the author suggests, remained politically and aesthetically fraught as primarily white audiences understood emancipation and liberty for Black people in sculpture and in American life as mutually exclusive.

In a move certainly atypical for art historical scholarship, Beach identifies a fundamental problem with sculpture’s capacity to incite, effect, or reflect change in regards to slavery and its abolition while offering a provocative solution. “Abolition will be realized only in part,” she argues, “through the toppling of symbols—of which statues remain one part—but effected more urgently through the refusal and dismantling of structure and systems that constitute our present world” (20). There is no doubt that Beach, with this text, is on the forefront of art historical scholarship and provides the field of American art with a bevy of expansive methodological and theoretical models to advance the study of race and sculpture. Going forward, Sculpture at the End of Slavery should be regarded as a foundational text for the study of American sculpture.

Kelvin L. Parnell, Jr.
PhD candidate, Art History, University of Virginia