Lewis, Edmonia (c. 1844–after 1909), sculptor


Rivo, Lisa E.. "Lewis, Edmonia." African American National Biography, edited by Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr.. , edited by and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. . Oxford African American Studies Center, http://www.oxfordaasc.com/article/opr/t0001/e0356 (accessed Mon Mar 02 09:16:18 EST 2015).

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Lewis, Edmonia (c. 1844–after 1909), sculptor, was born to an African American father and a mother of African American and Mississauga descent, whose names are not known. The Mississauga, a Chippewa (Ojibway in Canada) band, lived in southern Ontario. Information about Lewis's early life remains inconsistent and unverified. She was probably born in 1844 or 1845, most likely near Albany, New York. Orphaned by age nine, Lewis and her older brother, Samuel, were taken in by their maternal aunts, Mississaugas living near Niagara Falls. Lewis joined the tribe in hunting and fishing along Lake Ontario and the Niagara River and in making and selling moccasins, baskets, and other souvenirs. Although she later gave her Mississauga name as “Wildfire,” Lewis's translation from the Chippewa may have been intended to authenticate her Indian background and appeal to whites. She remained with the Mississauga until age twelve, when Samuel, using earnings amassed during the gold rush in California, arranged for her schooling at New York Central College, an abolitionist school in McGrawville, New York.

In 1859 Lewis entered the ladies' preparatory program at Oberlin College. There she adopted the name Mary Edmonia, using Mary with friends and faculty and Edmonia on her drawings. Lewis proceeded amiably until the winter of 1862, when two of her white housemates accused her of poisoning them with cantharides, or “Spanish fly.” Years of antiblack and anti-Oberlin feelings came to a head, and Lewis was badly beaten by a mob and left for dead. John Mercer Langston defended her at a two-day trial, securing a dismissal on the basis of insufficient evidence. The following year, when she was again falsely accused—this time of stealing art supplies—she was unofficially but summarily expelled.

Undeterred by her lack of training, Lewis moved to Boston in 1863 with the intention of becoming an artist. Through supporters at Oberlin, she met William Lloyd Garrison and the portrait sculptor Edward Brackett. With the encouragement of Brackett, Lydia Maria Child, and other abolitionists, she learned the basics of clay sculpting. Her first sculptures were clay and plaster portrait medallions and portrait busts of antislavery leaders and Civil War heroes. In 1864 she sold more than one hundred reproductions of her bust of Robert Gould Shaw, the Boston Brahmin who led and died with the black soldiers of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, which included twenty-one men from Oberlin, some of whom Lewis knew. With enough money to travel abroad, in 1865 she sailed for Florence, Italy, where she was assisted by the world-renowned sculptor Hiram Powers. Six months later she settled in Rome, renting a studio once occupied by the neoclassicist Antonio Canova, arguably the greatest sculptor of his time.

Rome in 1866 was home to a vibrant community of American expatriate artists that included Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, and the sculptor William Wetmore Story. Lewis was immediately taken under the wing of the sculptor Harriet Hosmer and her friend the actress Charlotte Cushman, principal members of the social set that Henry James called “that strange sisterhood of American ‘lady sculptors’” (James, William Wetmore Story and His Friends, 1903, 257). In this group, which included Cushman's companion, Emma Stebbins, Anne Whitney, Louisa Lander, and Margaret Foley, Lewis saw rare examples of financially, sexually, and artistically independent women. Although she caused quite a sensation at Cushman's trendy soirees and benefited from her new friends' generosity, Lewis always remained on the perimeter, considered a bit of a novelty.

Resourceful and fiercely independent, Lewis taught herself to carve marble and established herself as a neoclassical sculptor. She eschewed the custom of employing assistants, fearing that the veracity of her work would be attacked, as had been the case with other black and women artists, including Hosmer and Whitney. Instead, Lewis, who was only four feet tall, undertook by herself what was often very physical work. In the 1860s and 1870s her studio, listed in all the fashionable guidebooks, was a frequent stop for American tourists. She supported herself primarily through commissions for small terra-cotta or marble portrait busts and marble copies of Classical and Renaissance masterworks. Over the years her busts of-Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Senator Charles Sumner, the poet Anna Quincy Waterston, and the abolitionist Maria Weston Chapman were purchased by American collectors. Catering to collectors' tastes, she also produced “conceits” or “fancy pieces” (sculptures using children to convey sentimental themes), of which three survive: Poor Cupid (1873, National Museum of American Art [NMAA]), Asleep (1871), and Awake (1872), both in the San Jose Public Library. After her 1868 conversion to Catholicism, Lewis received several major commissions for religious works, none of which survive.

Despite her faithfulness to the formal and thematic conventions of neoclassicism, Lewis rendered unique treatments of African American and American Indian themes and figures. Her first large-scale marble sculpture, The Freed Woman and Her Child (1866, location unknown), was the first by an African American sculptor to depict this subject. Forever Free (1867, Howard University), showing a man and woman casting off the shackles of enslavement, takes its name from a line in the Emancipation Proclamation: “All persons held as slaves shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Like The Freed Woman, the female figure in Forever Free strongly evokes the well-known abolitionist emblem engraved by Patrick Henry Reason in 1835, Am I Not a Woman and a Sister?, which shows an African American woman on bended knee, stripped to the waist, her head tilted toward the sky, and her clasped hands raised, revealing heavy chains attached at her wrists. While Lewis's figure adopts the pose and gesture of the emblem, her freed slave, unchained and fully clothed, is no longer identifiable as African American by color or physiognomy. Lewis's alterations, made according to the stylistic dictates of the period, simultaneously elide the issue of race and restore the dignity and humanity denied African Americans by slavery.

Lewis made several versions of the biblical figure Hagar, only one of which survives, Hagar (1868, NMAA). The Egyptian outcast, though used by other nineteenth-century artists as a symbol of slavery, had particular meaning for Lewis, herself the victim of racial violence and banishment. Reflecting on her sculpture in 1871, she told a journalist, “I have a strong sympathy for all women who have struggled and suffered.” Inspired by Longfellow's popular poem “Song of Hiawatha,” Lewis produced a number of marble works featuring American Indians. These works include busts of Minnehaha and Hiawatha (both 1868, Newark Museum), The Marriage of Hiawatha (1867, Walter Evans Collection), and Old Arrow Maker, also known as The Wooing of Hiawatha (three versions survive, made between 1866 and 1872). Lewis broke from strict neoclassical aesthetics by giving the arrow maker idealized but recognizable American Indian features. His daughter, however, appears white, her ethnicity represented only by posture, gesture, and costume. Lewis's depictions of American Indians as proud, dignified, and peaceful countered prevailing images of Indians (and blacks) as half-naked, eroticized savages.

Lewis returned to the United States on several occasions to exhibit and sell her work. Her 1873 cross-country trip terminating in San Francisco, certainly an unusual journey for an unaccompanied black woman, made her one of the first sculptors to exhibit in California. She reached the pinnacle of her career three years later at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition with the exhibition of Death of Cleopatra, a subject popular with nineteenth-century artists and abolitionists. Lewis's enthroned, lifesize Egyptian queen in the throes of death directly challenged William Wetmore Story's more traditional representation of the same subject also on view at the exposition. Cleopatra caused a commotion, provoking strong responses from audiences and critics, including William J. Clark Jr., who wrote in 1878, “The effects of death are represented with such skill as to be absolutely repellant. Apart from all questions of taste, however, the striking qualities of the work are undeniable, and it could only have been produced by a sculptor of genuine endowments” (Great American Sculptures). Death of Cleopatra, assumed lost until it was rediscovered in 1985, is now on view at the National Museum of American Art.

Ironically, the Centennial Exposition marked the beginning of the end for neoclassical sculpture and, with it, the demand for Lewis's work. By the 1880s romanticism, exemplified by the work of Auguste Rodin, had challenged the stiffness of neoclassical sculpture, bronze had overtaken marble as the fashionable medium, and Paris had become the center of the art world. Lewis, however, remained in Rome, and by 1900 she was all but forgotten. Frederick Douglass provided the last substantive account of Lewis's activities, which included, according to his diary, hosting Douglass and his new wife in January 1887. Except for a brief mention in an American Catholic magazine in 1909, no further record of Lewis survives. The date and place of her death remain unknown.

A generation older than the sculptors Meta Warrick Fuller and May Howard Jackson and two generations older than Elizabeth Prophet, Augusta Savage, and Richmond Barthé, Lewis was the first African American sculptor to gain an international reputation. Lewis, who never married, was an independent woman and a skilled survivor, succeeding against unprecedented odds. In all, she created about sixty unique pieces, less than half of which have been located. Remarkably, Lewis succeeded amid a social milieu deeply stratified according to race, gender, and class and within an artistic style exclusively devoted to ideas of Western beauty and history, even while she herself did not conform to any of these standards.

Further Reading

  • Bearden, Romare, and Harry Henderson. A History of African American Artists: From 1792 to the Present (1993).
  • Hartigan, Lynda Roscoe, and the National Museum of American Art. Sharing Traditions: Five Black Artists in Nineteenth-century America (1985).
  • Wolfe, Rinna. Edmonia Lewis: Wildfire in Marble (1998)

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