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A Somber Sculpture of the First Black Actor to Play Othello

When Ira Aldridge took the London stage in 1825, he became the first black actor to portray Shakespeare’s Othello.

Pietro Calvi, “Othello” (modeled 1868; this version executed 1873), marble and bronze (courtesy Walters Art Museum)

A single tear drips from Othello’s bronze eyes as he contemplates Desdemona’s marble handkerchief in the 1868 bust by Pietro Calvi depicting Shakespeare’s tragic hero in a moment of tense anguish over his wife’s perceived infidelity. From the creases in the small piece of fabric, planted by Iago as the catalyst of Othello’s unravelling, to the carved stone that forms his cloak, the life-sized sculpture is incredibly detailed in its depiction of the character.

It’s also believed to represent Ira Aldridge, an acclaimed New York-born actor who became the first black man to play Othello in Europe. This month, the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore announced the acquisition of the bust, one of 10 versions known to exist.

William Mulready, “Ira Aldridge, Possibly in the Role of Othello” (1826), oil on panel (courtesy Walters Art Museum)

“The link of Calvi’s ‘Othello’ to Aldridge is somewhat circumstantial, as it was modeled a year after his death,” Jo Briggs, associate curator of 18th- and 19th-century art at the Walters, told Hyperallergic. “However, I think about Hollywood ‘types’ — in the 19th century, Aldridge would have been the actor who came to mind as the most prominent to play Othello, and his image was well known through photographs and prints, so I think it’s likely Aldridge’s image informed Calvi’s work, but is not strictly a portrait.”

The sculpture is on view in the museum’s Centre Street lobby through June 1, after which it will be relocated to a fourth floor gallery, joining an 1826 painting by William Mulready attributed as a rare portrait of Aldridge made during his lifetime. You can watch videos of the sculpture’s installation, as well as Briggs’s discussion of the work, on the Walters Art Museum’s site.

“Pietro Calvi is not especially well known, although he exhibited internationally, and seems to have specialized in sculptures that combine marble and bronze,” Briggs stated. “His works suggest he was interested in portraying characters from literature. Given he specialized in African figures or figures of African descent, Othello would be an obvious choice, as Shakespeare’s well-known black tragic hero.”

As Alison Kinney explored in a 2015 article on Hyperallergic, blackface in Verdi’s Otello opera endured into the 21st century, so an African American actor taking the stage in the role in the early 19th century was groundbreaking. Aldridge left his hometown of New York City as a teenager, sailing to England. He’d had an early interest in theater, but no major training when he performed as Othello for the first time in 1825. The Public Ledger reported that while they were “surprised to find the Hero of the Piece … a Gentlemen of Colour lately arrived from America,” his death “was certainly one of the finest physical representations of bodily anguish we ever witnessed.”

Ira Aldridge as Aaron in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (1852) (courtesy Library of Congress/Wikimedia)

Until the end of his life, he toured Europe extensively, his popularity reaching as far as Russia. He added Aaron in Titus Andronicus to his repertoire, and later embodied traditionally white characters like Macbeth. Although there was more freedom in Europe (the British Empire abolished slavery in 1833), he still faced discrimination, and was limited in his roles. His 1833 performance at London’s Covent Garden was reviewed harshly by The Athenaeum, which was horrified at actress Ellen Tree “being pawed about” by the black actor, and declared it “impossible” that he “should comprehend the meaning and force of even the words he utters.”

According to Alex Ross’s extensive 2013 story on Aldridge’s life for the New Yorker, following the Civil War in the United States he had planned to tour the country, starting in New York. Yet a week before the voyage he became ill, and died on August 7, 1867. He was buried at his last tour stop, in Łódź, Poland, where he remains beneath a cross-topped monument that includes his photograph, in which he is dressed regally as Othello.

The tomb of Ira Aldridge in Łódź Old Cemetery, Poland (photo by Jan W. Raczkowski/Wikimedia)

Pietro Calvi’s “Othello” is now on view at the Walters Art Museum (600 North Charles Street, Baltimore).

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