While the transatlantic career of the sculptor Edmonia Lewis is now relatively well known, that of her African-American predecessor Eugène Warburg is far less familiar. Born a slave in New Orleans in 1825/1826, Warburg was the son of a German Jewish immigrant and a mixed-race, slave mother. Manumitted as a child, Warburg trained as a sculptor in marble, had some success in his native city, and arrived in Europe in 1853. In Paris, London, Berlin, Venice, Florence and Rome, Warburg enjoyed the support and encouragement of both important pro-slavery American diplomats as well as famous American and English anti-slavery figures such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Duchess of Sutherland. Warburg’s sculptural illustration of Uncle Tiff, one of the major characters in Stowe’s second and more radical anti-slavery novel, Dred (1856), has recently resurfaced, and this – along with a number of new documentary sources including an eloquent unpublished letter by Stowe – transforms our understanding of Warburg’s career and influence. An ambitious and daring artist, Warburg stands out as one of the first of many African Americans who have sought creative freedom and advancement in the centers of European culture.
Paul Kaplan is Professor of Art History in the School of Humanities at Purchase College, SUNY. A specialist in representations of people of color in both European and American art, he is the author of The Rise of the Black Magus in Western Art (Ann Arbor, 1985) and a major contributor to volumes 2, 3 and 4 of Harvard University Press’s new edition of The Image of the Black in Western Art. In 2002-2003 he served as Project Scholar for the artist Fred Wilson’s “Speak of Me as I Am,” an installation in the American Pavilion at the 2003 Venice Biennale, and in 2008 and 2012 he was a fellow of the Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He was one of the consultants for “Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe,” the Walters Art Museum’s 2012-2013 exhibition on images of Africa and Africans in sixteenth-century European art, and is also involved with NYU’s “ReSignifications: European Blackamoors” exhibition project, which will come to fruition in 2015. His current work includes research on the intersections of race and art in the writings of nineteenth-century American and British visitors to Italy.