The Ethiopian

Copied Arthur Lee, The Ethiopian, 1912, bronze, overall: 27 7811 3410 18 in. (70.929.925.8 cm.), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase made possible by William T. Evans, William Franklin Paris, and Helen L. Spear, 1990.30

Artwork Details

The Ethiopian
Gorham Manufacturing Company
overall: 27 7811 3410 18 in. (70.929.925.8 cm.)
back left corner of base engraved: AL (artist's monogram) 1912 back right side edge of base stamped: GORHAMCO, FOUNDERS GR (illegible) C (each letter written in a square) OAPI
Credit Line
Museum purchase made possible by William T. Evans, William Franklin Paris, and Helen L. Spear
Mediums Description
  • Figure male — nude
  • Figure male — full length
  • African — Ethiopian
Object Number

Artwork Description

Arthur Lee was best known for sculpting idealized nudes, such as this figure of an athlete. African American boxer and actor Lester Johnson purportedly posed for this work. It was made following Jack Johnson's world championship title in 1908, an event that undermined the prevailing myth of Black inferiority and countered social requirements for race-based deference.

The word Ethiopian held multiple associations in the early twentieth century--for African American leaders it referred to Black autonomy and pride in Ethiopia's defeat of a modern, European army as it fought to maintain its independence. But the word also carried negative connotations and Lee likely assigned this title to mock Black boxers, whose victories challenged the superiority of the dominant white society. Tellingly, when he exhibited the award-winning sculpture two years later, Lee changed the title to a more explicit racist epithet. By the 1930s, the sculpture had recovered its original title, even though white anxieties surrounding Black masculinity persisted.