Edmonia Lewis 1845-1911

Edmonia Lewis 1845-1911

Edmonia Lewis is an artist that inspires me. An amazing woman with an inspirational life story, Edmonia overcame many obstacles to become the first major sculptress of African-American and Native American descent.  While this alone is tremendously impressive, her unique style of working with marble was unparalleled.

Unlike fellow neoclassical artists, she did not carve ideas and images from classical art, history and literature; her subject matter reflected her interest in contemporary race relations. Her major works include “The Freed Woman and Child” of 1866, “Forever Free” of 1867, “Hagar in the Wilderness” of 1868, a portrait of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of 1869-1871, and “The Old Arrow Maker and His Daughter” of 1872.

In 1876 she exhibited her ambitious “The Death of Cleopatra” which won a medal at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. In 1877, President Ulysses S Grant commissioned Edmonia Lewis to sculpt a portrait. Edmonia Lewis’s birth year and place are disputed, but is estimated between 1843-45 in Albany, New York.

Lewis was orphaned before the age of 10 and grew up with her mother’s tribe, the Mississauga (Chippewa), selling crafts as they traveled. Her brother, who left living with his tribe to find success in the California gold rush, arranged her education in McGrawville at the New York Central College, a Baptist abolitionist school; however,  she had difficulty speaking English and conforming to the school’s strict codes, and  returned to her aunts. Her brother encouraged her to return to school at the preparatory departmet at Oberlin College, where she pursued liberal arts and discovered her talent at fine art.

Lewis left Oberlin College after being accused of poisoning two white female students with “Spanish Fly” or cantharides. She knew the two students well and considered them friends. Beaten badly by a group of local townspeople prior to her hearing, and left for dead the  charges against her  were dropped due to lack of scientific evidence. Her accusers never returned to Oberlin, and Lewis’s beating was not investigated.  Lewis returned to school but was socially ostracized and faced several charges of theft of art supplies, which were all dropped due to lack of evidence.  Lewis was not allowed to register for her final term at Oberlin, and thus never graduated.

Fueled by her humiliations at Oberlin, and determined to succeed as an artist,  Lewis moved to Boston, and studied under portrait sculptor Edward Brackett.  It was during this period of time  that ran concurrent with the civil war, she created and sold medallion portraits of war heroes and antislavery leaders, and executed her first portrait bust, of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, a white Bostonion killed as he led his black troops to battle.  These sales financed her move to Europe, where she  settled in Rome due to its fair treatment of women artists, as well as its classical sculpture traditions. She learned to carve marble in a neo-classical style and earned significant income and acclaim from commissions of portrait busts and “conceits,” and was championed by Charlotte Cushman, America’s great first dramatic actress, who lived in Rome and served as a social tastemaker.

Lewis was seen as an exotic marvel, and worked very hard to be taken seriously as a sculptor. Lewis’s career declined in the 1880’s as neoclassical sculpture went out of style, and possibly due to a decline in patronage from abolitionists.  She continued to secure commissions from the Roman Catholic Church, including the major “Adoration of the Magi” for a Baltimore Church in 1883.

Lewis fell into obscurity, and sadly the majority of her works have been lost over time.  The details of her death are cloudy, and she is thought to have passed away in Rome or London circa 1909.

Edmonia Lewis is an artist that inspires me.