Born: 1844 in New York or Ohio, died: 1907 in London, England
Edmonia Lewis represents several firsts in my series of artists. She is the first sculptor I have covered, and the first African American/ Native American woman to have graced the pages of this blog. Though not much is known about her early or later life, she certainly was a groundbreaking and remarkable force in the art world.
Born to an African American father and a Chippewa Indian mother in the year 1844, Lewis was orphaned at a young age. It is believed that she and her brother traveled with their mother’s tribe in New York state throughout their childhoods, being given the names Wildfire and Sunrise, respectively. Her brother Sunrise then traveled to California during the Gold Rush, obtaining a considerable amount of wealth. He enrolled Wildfire into Oberlin College and it was there that she adopted the name Edmonia Lewis. She excelled in her studies, pursuing art and gaining in interest in the abolitionist movement. Tragedy struck, however, when two white students accused Lewis of poisoning them. The young artist was acquitted of all charges but was violently harassed by upset locals. She left the college and fled to Boston with the help of her older brother.
In Boston, Lewis became further involved in the abolitionist movement, befriending the famed anti-slavery advocate William Lloyd Garrison, who introduced her to a sculptor, Edward Brackett. She became his protégé, and began to earn recognition for some of her early pieces, especially a bust of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the leader of a black troop in the Civil War. This sculpture spurred her career in the art world, allowing Lewis to earn enough money to travel abroad to Rome.
Colonel Robert Gould Shaw
This piece shows the beginnings of Lewis’s neoclassical style, with its “lofty idealism and Greco-Roman resources.” She portrays the subject both elegantly and realistically.
Lewis found her calling in Rome, where she converted to Roman Catholicism and joined a group of other female, neoclassical sculptors. The different elements of her identity are evident in her work, as she often focused on African, Native American, and Biblical themes. Lewis also felt compelled to work entirely alone, despite the fact that many marble sculptors in Italy at the time received assistance with making their pieces. She didn’t want to be subjected to “racist assumptions that she wasn’t really responsible for her work.” This decision, along with her experiences at Oberlin College, demonstrate that Edmonia’s life was not at all an easy one. She had to work even harder than her white contemporaries to not only thrive in the sphere of art, but also just to survive.
Hagar, 1875 Forever Free, 1867
Hiawatha’s Marriage, 1868
These sculptures help to display the extent of Lewis’s artistic and personal interests. Hagar is based upon the Biblical story of Abraham’s second wife Hagar, a handmaid who was to bear him a son. Forever Free and Hiawatha’s Marriage reflect Lewis’s own African American and Native American ethnic background. Forever Free was a tribute to the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing black American slaves, while Hiawatha is a reference to a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
The end of the sculptor’s life isn’t clearly documented. She stopped making new pieces around 1880, but remained in Europe. Reports state that she was alive as late as 1911, but it’s now known she died in London in 1907. Many of her sculptures were lost after her death and have recently been rediscovered, however many still remain unseen.
Edmonia Lewis really breaks the mold of the artists I’ve been studying– she wasn’t white and born into a wealthy family; her life, largely, was not easy. I think this represents a growing trend as we move into the twentieth century. Art became a more accessible pursuit for people, so we’ll start to see more female artists and artists from different backgrounds in my next few posts. I’m really excited to move in this direction and can’t wait to see what brilliant artists lie ahead. Stay tuned!