Biography of Edmonia Lewis, American Sculptor

Edmonia Lewis

  Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Edmonia Lewis (c. July 4, 1844–September 17, 1907) was an American sculptor of African-American and Native American heritage. Her work, which features themes of freedom and abolition, became popular after the Civil War and earned her numerous accolades. Lewis depicted African, African-American, and Native American people in her work, and she is particularly recognized for her naturalism within the neoclassical genre.

Fast Facts: Edmonia Lewis

  • Known For: Lewis was a sculptor who used neoclassical elements to depict African-American and Native American people.
  • Born: July 4 or July 14, in either 1843 or 1845, possibly in upstate New York
  • Died: September 17, 1907 in London, England
  • Occupation: Artist (sculptor)
  • Education: Oberlin College
  • Notable WorksForever Free (1867), Hagar in the Wilderness (1868), The Old Arrow Maker and His Daughter (1872), The Death of Cleopatra (1875)
  • Notable Quote: "I was practically driven to Rome in order to obtain the opportunities for art culture, and to find a social atmosphere where I was not constantly reminded of my color. The land of liberty had not room for a colored sculptor."

Early Life

Edmonia Lewis was one of two children born to a mother of Native American and African-American heritage. Her father, an African Haitian, was a "gentlemen's servant." Her birthdate and birthplace (possibly New York or Ohio) are in doubt. Lewis may have been born on July 14 or July 4, in either 1843 or 1845. She herself claimed her birthplace was upstate New York. 

Lewis spent her early childhood with her mother's people, the Mississauga band of Ojibway (Chippewa Indians). She was known as Wildfire, and her brother was called Sunrise. After they were orphaned when Lewis was about 10 years old, two aunts took them in. They lived near Niagara Falls in northern New York.

Education

Sunrise, with wealth from the California Gold Rush and from working as a barber in Montana, financed his sister's education that included prep school and Oberlin College. She studied art at Oberlin beginning in 1859. Oberlin was one of very few schools at the time to admit either women or people of color.

Lewis's time there, though, was not without its difficulties. In 1862, two white girls at Oberlin accused her of attempting to poison them. Lewis was acquitted of the charges but was subjected to verbal attacks and a beating by anti-abolitionist vigilantes. Even though Lewis was not convicted in the incident, Oberlin's administration refused to allow her to enroll the next year to complete her graduation requirements.

Early Success in New York

After leaving Oberlin, Lewis went to Boston and New York to study with sculptor Edward Brackett, who was introduced to her by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Soon, abolitionists began to publicize her work. Lewis's first bust was of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, a white Bostonian who led black troops in the Civil War. She sold copies of the bust, and with the proceeds she was eventually able to move to Rome, Italy.

Move to Marble and Neoclassical Style

In Rome, Lewis joined a large artistic community that included other women sculptors such as Harriet Hosmer, Anne Whitney, and Emma Stebbins. She began to work in marble and adopted the neoclassical style, which included elements of ancient Greek and Roman art. Concerned with racist assumptions that she wasn't really responsible for her work, Lewis worked alone and was not part of the community that drew buyers to Rome. Among her patrons in America was abolitionist and feminist Lydia Maria Child. Lewis converted to Roman Catholicism during her time in Italy.

Lewis told a friend that she lived within the city of Rome to support her art:

"There is nothing so beautiful as the free forest. To catch a fish when you are hungry, cut the boughs of a tree, make a fire to roast it, and eat it in the open air, is the greatest of all luxuries. I would not stay a week pent up in cities, if it were not for my passion for art."
Edmonia Lewis' most famous sculpture:
Edmonia Lewis' most famous sculpture: "The Death of Cleopatra" (1876). Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Famous Sculptures

Lewis had some success, especially among American tourists, for her depictions of African, African-American, and Native American people. Egyptian themes were, at the time, considered representations of Black Africa. Her work has been criticized for the Caucasian look of many of her female figures, though their costuming is considered more ethnically accurate. Among her best-known sculptures are "Forever Free" (1867), a sculpture commemorating the ratification of the 13th Amendment and which depicts a black man and woman celebrating the Emancipation Proclamation; "Hagar in the Wildnerness," a sculpture of the Egyptian handmaiden of Sarah and Abraham, mother of Ishmael; "The Old Arrow-Maker and His Daughter," a scene of Native Americans; and "The Death of Cleopatra," a depiction of the Egyptian queen.

Lewis created the "The Death of Cleopatra" for the 1876 Philadelphia Centenniel, and it was also displayed at the 1878 Chicago Exposition. The sculpture was lost for a century. It turned out to have been displayed on the grave of a race track owner's favorite horse, Cleopatra, while the track was transformed first into a golf course and then a munitions plant. With another building project, the statue was moved and then rediscovered, and in 1987 it was restored. It is now part of the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Death

Lewis disappeared from public view in the late 1880s. Her last known sculpture was completed in 1883, and Frederick Douglass met with her in Rome in 1887. A Catholic magazine reported on her in 1909 and there was a report of her in Rome in 1911.

For a long time, no definitive death date was known for Edmonia Lewis. In 2011, cultural historian Marilyn Richardson uncovered evidence from British records that she was living in the Hammersmith area of London and died in the Hammersmith Borough Infirmary on September 17, 1907, despite those reports of her in 1909 and 1911.

Legacy

Though she received some attention in her lifetime, Lewis and her innovations were not widely recognized until after her death. Her work has been featured in several posthumous exhibitions; some of her most famous pieces now reside in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Sources

  • Atkins, Jeannine. "Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis." Simon & Schuster, 2017.
  • Buick, Kirsten. "Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History’s Black and Indian Subject." Duke University Press, 2009.
  • Henderson, Albert. "The Indomitable Spirit of Edmonia Lewis: A Narrative Biography." Esquiline Hill Press, 2013.