American sculptor Edmonia Lewis (c. 1840-c. 1909), of African-American and Native American back ground, overcame tremendous odds and the effects of a terrorist attack she survived as a young woman to become a successful artist working in Rome, Italy.
Long forgotten, Lewis's sculptures have found their way back into museum collections through remarkable routes of rediscovery. Even though the contributions of minority artists have long been undervalued, art historians were quick to realize what had been lost: Lewis, although she worked in the highly conventionalized style known as neoclassicism, injected elements of her own background into her works. Triply disadvantaged as an African American, a Native American, and a woman, she drew on history and classical mythology to create sculptures that expressed her feelings and her perception of her own position.
Raised in Native American Tribe
Both the earliest and final years of Lewis's life are shrouded in mystery, deepened by questionable statements she gave to interviewers as she attempted to expand the foothold she had gained in the art market after moving to Italy. Birth years from 1840 to 1845 appear in various accounts of her life, with the earlier part of that range seeming the most likely: she is known to have entered Oberlin College in 1859, and while she could certainly have matriculated at the age of 14 or 15, she also attended another secondary or post-secondary institution, New York Central College, for several years before that, and it is unlikely that she did so as a preteen. Lewis's father was African American, probably an immigrant from Haiti who worked as a servant; her mother was Native American, a member of the Chippewa tribe. Lewis's birthplace is also unknown. Contemporary accounts have stated that she was from Albany, New York, or the nearby town of Greenbush (now East Greenbush), but she told an English interviewer that she was from Greenhigh, Ohio. She also apparently spent time in Newark, New Jersey, and may have been born there.
Lewis went by several different names during her life. Born Mary Edmonia Lewis, she dropped her first name later in life. She also said she had a Native American name, Wildfire, and that after her parents died she had been brought up among the Chippewa—leading a “wandering life, fishing, swimming and making moccasins,” she told the London art critic Henry Wreford in 1866, as quoted in History Today. Some corroboration for Lewis's account surfaced in the form of records showing that a Chippewa woman named Catherine had married an African American named John Mike on a reservation in what is now Mississauga, Ontario.
Lewis also had a brother, 12 years older than she, who was called Samuel Lewis or Sunrise. He headed west during the Gold Rush years of the late 1840s and apparently struck it rich, for he sent money back east to provide for his sister's education. When Edmonia was 12, she enrolled at the New York Central College in McGrawville, a Baptist-affiliated school known for its sympathy to abolitionist ideas. After about three years of study there, she was, she told Wreford, “declared to be too wild.” She moved on to Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, which in 1835 had become the first college in the United States to admit women and African Americans.
Despite Oberlin's progressive ideals there was still plenty of racial tension at the school, and especially in the surrounding community. Edmonia did well at Oberlin for several years, finishing the college preparatory part of the curriculum and beginning to take liberal arts courses. She lived with two white girls, Christine Ennes and Maria Miles, in a boarding house owned by an abolitionist minister. But her environment began to unravel on January 27, 1862, when her two roommates went out for a sleigh ride with male friends after all three girls had drunk some spiced wine—Edmonia apparently barely touched hers. During the ride, both Christine and Maria complained of abdominal pains and then collapsed. Doctors concluded that they had been poisoned, and both blamed Lewis. The poison was cantharides, popularly known as Spanish Fly; it was used in small doses for its supposed effect as a sexual stimulant.
Left for Dead
Put on trial, Lewis was defended by lawyer and Oberlin graduate John Mercer Langston, who was himself shot at by the father of one of the poisoned girls (both survived) while preparing to try the case. In his autobiography, quoted in History Today, he recalled that Lewis “was seized by unknown persons, carried out into the field lying at the rear, and after being severely beaten with her clothes and jewellery [sic] torn from her person and scattered here and there, she was left in a dark obscure place to die.” Searchers found her, but it took almost two weeks before she was well enough for the trial to begin. When it did, Langston moved successfully for dismissal without calling any witnesses, arguing that the contents of the girls' stomachs had never been analyzed, and thus the charges against Lewis could not be proved. It was never established whether she had poisoned the two girls, given them the stimulant as a prank, or been entirely unjustly accused. Neither Lewis's nor Langston's attackers were ever charged.
Troubles continued to plague Lewis at Oberlin. She was accused, and again exonerated, in two petty theft cases, and other students taunted her with whispers of “Watch out for Spanish Flies!” She thought of returning to her mother's tribe. Finally, aided by a letter of introduction to abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison, she headed for Boston without finishing her degree. After arriving there in January of 1866, she saw a bust of Benjamin Franklin in a shop window and decided she wanted to become a sculptor. Garrison arranged an apprenticeship in the studio of sculptor Edward Brackett, and Lewis made rapid progress. By 1865 she had created a sculpture of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the slain commander of the otherwise all-black 54th Massachusetts Infantry and a local hero of the Civil War. Lewis sold some one hundred copies of the Shaw bust to prominent Boston abolitionist families, and she decided to use the proceeds to finance further art studies in Rome.
Lewis was not alone in her decision to go to Rome. Many young artists, male and female, traveled to the city seen as the seat of the European artistic tradition, a city whose streets were a living museum of sculpture. But Lewis stated that she had another motivation as well: in Italy she was less likely to be judged solely on the basis of her skin color. She was quickly befriended by another female sculptor, Harriet Hosmer, and became part of an inseparable allfemale circle of artists who dressed in shirts and caps. That association, together with the lack of any hint of romance with a man in surviving records of Lewis's life, has led some historians of gay life to conclude that she was a lesbian. Lewis was also supported by the Abolitionist Lydia Marie Child, who was living in Rome at the time.
Setting to work in Rome, Lewis sculpted Freedwoman and Her Child, the first sculpture on the theme of emancipation by an African-American artist. Shortly after that, she was profiled in the Atheneum and another London publication, the Art-Journal. While she frequently addressed African-American themes in her art, she also stressed her Native American ancestry. The poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, notably “The Song of Hiawatha,” were reaching a peak of popularity in both the United States and Europe, and art involving Native American imagery was marketable. Lewis's major work based on Native American themes was The Old Arrow-Maker and His Daughter (The Wooing of Hiawatha) (1867), which was purchased by a wealthy patron, donated to the Boston YMCA, and finally acquired by the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C.
Opened Roman Showrooms
With commissions for copies of busts coming in from American patrons, Lewis prospered. She opened a showroom on the Via della Frezza in Rome and attended the Paris Exposition, a major arts exhibition. Books and travel guides about Rome, such as John Murray's Handbook of Rome and Its Environs, began to mention her studio as an important stop for visitors to the city, and one of the visitors who came to see her was Longfellow himself, in 1868. The poet's family thought highly of the bust that resulted. In 1870 Lewis made a small medallion bearing the likeness of the composer Franz Liszt. Lewis also revealed that she had joined the Roman Catholic church in 1868.
Some of Lewis's sculptures, such as Poor Cupid and a bust of the Roman emperor Diocletian, took up themes typical of neoclassical art, but remarkably often she took up subjects that reflected her own background. The Egyptian woman Hagar from the biblical Book of Genesis, who would have been considered black from a nineteenthcentury perspective, became the subject of Lewis's Hagar in the Wilderness (1868). She created that work, as well as some others, without a commission from a rich buyer and with no prospect of immediate financial gain, and was rebuked for doing so by Child. Lewis began to travel to the United States to meet with buyers and promote her works; Hagar in the Wilderness was set up in Chicago's Farwell Hall. She billed herself as the Young and Gifted Colored Sculptress from Rome, and charged visitors 25 cents to see the sculpture. In America, Lewis found a ready market for busts of abolitionist heroes like John Brown and Senator Charles Sumner. Although most sculptors hired teams of assistants to help with the heavy work of moving hundreds of pounds of marble, Lewis did all the work on her sculptures herself, partly to forestall expected suggestions that a black woman could not possibly have created works of such skill and accomplishment.
Lewis's most ambitious work, and by most accounts her masterpiece, was the two-ton The Death of Cleopatra, finished in time for the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. While many sculptures of the Egyptian queen showed her as a power-hungry seductress, Lewis showed the moment of her death, a tragic and vulnerable figure slumped in a chair after being bitten by the poisonous snake she is said to have used to cause her own death. The statue had a powerful emotional quality that both attracted and repelled viewers in Philadelphia and then at the Chicago Interstate Exposition, where it was moved in 1878 after it failed to sell in Philadelphia. One Philadelphia journalist, quoted in History Today, noted that the work “excites more admiration and gathers larger crowds around it than any other work of art in the vast collection of Memorial Hall.” But in Chicago, as well, it went unsold and Lewis finally placed the sculpture in storage and returned to Europe.
Much of Lewis's work was neglected for decades before its ultimate rediscovery, but the odyssey of The Death of Cleopatra was especially unusual. It resurfaced in a saloon on Chicago's Clark Street and was later acquired by gambler “Blind John” Condon, who placed it atop the grave of a favorite racehorse named Cleopatra. There the sculpture remained (in accordance with a legal writ executed by the dying Condon in 1915) until a U.S. postal service building was constructed on the site in the 1970s. At that point it was moved to the grounds of a construction company in Cicero, Illinois, where a fire inspector became intrigued by it and instructed his son's Boy Scout troop to paint it. Local newspaper accounts of this episode brought the sculpture to the attention of the Forest Hills (Illinois) Historical Society, which moved it to a storeroom at a shopping mall. The Forest Hills group made inquiries to try and determine what it was they owned, and through a chain of museum curators who heard about it, the sculpture found its way to the National Museum of American Art in Washington, where it resides today.
Lewis made several more important sculptures; she traveled to Syracuse, New York, and Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1879 to exhibit The Veiled Bride of Spring (it, too, had been relegated to a scrap yard but was rescued by people who knew nothing more about it than that they liked it), and in 1883 she executed a remarkable altarpiece featuring a multiracial set of cherubs for a Baltimore church. Neoclassical sculpture was falling out of fashion, however, and her career slowed. Lewis continued to live in Rome, where Frederick Douglass visited her in 1887. In 1893 a pair of Lewis sculptures, Hiawatha and Phillis Wheatley (an eighteenth-century African-American poet who was little known in Lewis's day), were exhibited at the Columbian Exposition world's fair in 1893 in Chicago. Records of Lewis's later life are sparse; she visited New York in 1898 and apparently lived in London and Paris for a time. A Catholic magazine reported in 1909 that she was still alive, but the date and place of her death are unknown. In the early 2000s, Lewis's life became the subject of a play, Wildfire: Black Hands, White Marble, by Linda Beatrice Brown.
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History Today, October 2007.
Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, KY), June 30, 2007.
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Smithsonian, September 1996.
“Edmonia Lewis,” http://www.edmonialewis.com (November 23, 2007).
“Edmonia Lewis,” Lakewood (OH) Public Library: Women in History, http://www.lkwdpl.org/wihohio/lewi-edm.htm (November 23, 2007).
“The fascinating journey of a 19th-century sculpture …,” PBS Newshour, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment/edmonia_8-5.html (November 23, 2007).
“Lewis, Mary Edmonia (1844-1907),” An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture, http://www.glbtq.com/arts/lewis_me.html (November 23, 2007).
"Lewis, Edmonia." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lewis-edmonia-0
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Lewis, Edmonia 1843(?)-1911(?)
Edmonia Lewis 1843(?)-1911(?)
It is impressive enough that Edmonia Lewis managed to make herself into a successful artist with virtually no formal training; that she did so in the racist, sexist climate of the middle to late nineteenth century is truly remarkable. The child of an African American father and Native American mother, Lewis labored under a dense cloud of discrimination throughout her career. Despite the obstacles she faced, Lewis was able to leave a legacy as an important sculptor of the neo-classical style popular during part of the 1800s. Although her name fell into an obscurity that lasted for much of the twentieth century, the feminist and civil rights movements of the last few decades have given rise to a renewed interest in Lewis’s work.
Accounts of Edmonia Lewis’s life, especially the early part, are somewhat sketchy, and there is quite a bit of contradiction as to the details. She was probably born in either 1843 or 1845. July 4 and July 14 are among the dates listed in various sources. Lewis was most likely born in either Greenbush (near Albany), New York, or in Greenhigh, Ohio. Her father was of African American descent. In interviews, Lewis described him as “a gentlemen’s servant.” Her mother was a member of the Mississauga band of Chippewa Indians. Lewis spent her early childhood among her mother’s people, who knew the girl as “Wildfire.” Both of her parents died before she was ten years old. Wildfire and her brother, “Sunrise,” were placed in the custody of two aunts. Living near the Canadian border around Niagra Falls, New York, the family hunted and fished. They also sold handmade moccasins, baskets, and other goods to tourists.
Sometime during the 1850s, Sunrise headed west to seek his fortune in the Gold Rush. He returned several years later with a tidy sum of money and encouraged Edmonia to seek an education, which he would support financially. After a brief stint at a prep school near Albany, Edmonia enrolled in Ohio’s Oberlin college. Oberlin was one of the first institutions to admit both blacks and women, and the town itself had a history of racial tolerance, having served as a stopping point for slaves fleeing to the North.
After three relatively uneventful years at Oberlin, where she studied a general liberal arts curriculum, an incident took place that changed Lewis’s life: in 1862 two white
Born Mary Edmonia Lewis, or “Wildflower,” c. 1843, in either Greenhigh, OH, or Greenbush, NY; died c. 1911; daughter of a “gentlemen’s servant.” Education: Attended Oberlin College, 1859–62. Religion: Catholic.
Sculptor, 1863-c. 1900; sculptures include “Forever Free” (1867); “Hagar” (1869); “The Old Indian Arrow-maker and His Daughter” (1872); “Asleep” and “Awake” (1874); and “The Death of Cleopatra” (1875); work showed at numerous exhibitions, including Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, 1876, and Chicago Exhibition, 1878, as well as in Boston, San Francisco, and San Jose, CA; worked on commission for many churches and private collectors.
Awards: Gold medal, Naples exposition, for “Asleep.”
girls who boarded in the same house as Lewis accused her of trying to poison them. Although Lewis was acquitted of the crime—with the assistance of prominent African American lawyer John Mercer Langston—she was brutally beaten by vigilantes and tormented by verbal attacks for the rest of her stay in Oberlin. She was also accused of minor thefts at the school. Oberlin’s administrators finally succumbed to local pressure, and the following year they refused to allow Lewis to enroll for classes. Demoralized, Lewis left Oberlin without graduating.
By about 1863 Lewis had become interested in sculpture, though she had no practical experience working in the form. Armed only with a letter of introduction to well-known abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, Lewis arrived in Boston to pursue an art career. Garrison in turn introduced her to Edward Brackett, a successful sculptor of the era. Brackett provided Lewis with pieces of sculpture to replicate in clay, and he critiqued her earliest works.
With only this informal training, Lewis hung out a shingle at a studio rented by her brother and began soliciting work. During this first phase of her career, Lewis produced mainly medallion portraits of Civil War heroes and abolitionist leaders. Around 1865 Lewis made her first bust. Its subject, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, was a white officer who had led an all-black regiment into battle against the South. Gould had died in battle and subsequently become something of a folk hero among Yankee liberals. Lewis was able to sell about 100 plaster copies of the bust. Those sales financed her move later that year to Rome, which was a major hub of activity for expatriate American sculptors at the time.
In Rome Lewis was part of a large community of women sculptors that included Harriet Hosmer, Emma Stebbins, Margaret Foley, and Anne Whitney. There she learned to cut marble and practiced by copying classical statues. She adopted the most popular style of the time, neo-classical, which emphasized pure beauty of form over content. Like the other women sculptors in the Roman colony, Lewis was able to live relatively free of the behavioral constraints that existed in the more puritanical cities of the United States.
Nevertheless, Lewis did not fit in entirely with the other artists in Rome, partly due to her general distrust of people. Unlike most of her contemporaries, Lewis shunned formal instruction, choosing instead to rely on her instinctive abilities. This was as much a function of her financial need to produce sellable pieces quickly as it was an artistic decision. While some of the more established sculptors in Rome hired assistants to carve the final marble pieces, Lewis carved every piece herself out of fear that her work would otherwise be considered illegitimate.
Lewis’s most reliable sources of income were copies of classics sold to tourists and small portrait busts commissioned by wealthy liberal Bostonians. Even as her technical ability blossomed, subtle forms of racism limited the acceptance of her work. Jealous rivals sometimes attributed whatever minor successes she had to the novelty of her race. Some buyers did not believe that a black person could produce art of such a high caliber and insisted on watching her work before acknowledging its authenticity.
Lewis’s popularity peaked during the late 1860s and 1870s. Her studio became a common stop for tourists interested in sculpture. Her work also began to command higher prices. Her occasional trips back to the United States during this period were also received enthusiastically. She exhibited her work in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and San Jose, California. Among her successful works during this phase of her career were “Forever Free” (1867), a celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation; “Hagar in the Wilderness” (1868), an image of an Egyptian handmaiden; and “The Old Arrow Maker and His Daughter” (1872), an Indian group sculpture. In these works, Lewis embraced both parts of her heritage, rejecting the common stereotypes of the day. In particular, she was one of the few artists of the time whose work portrayed Indians as anything but savages. Many of Lewis’s most famous pieces were also influenced by her 1868 conversion to Catholicism, and churches became some of her best customers.
The story of Lewis’s 1875 sculpture “The Death of Cleopatra” is especially interesting and symbolic of her career as a whole. More realistic than her previous sculptures, “The Death of Cleopatra” marked a rare departure from her usual neo-classical style. Lewis shipped the sculpture to the United States for the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, where it garnered more attention than any other statue. It was similarly received at the Chicago Exposition two years later. After the Chicago Exposition, it was impractical for Lewis to ship the piece back to Rome, and it is unclear what became of it. The work was considered lost for more than a century.
It was finally identified in 1989 by members of the Forest Park (a Chicago suburb) Historical Society. Apparently, “The Death of Cleopatra” had been acquired by “Blind John” Condon, the owner of the Harlem Race Track in what is now Forest Park. He placed the statue on the grave of Cleopatra, his favorite horse. It remained there as the racetrack gave way to a golf course, then to a munitions plant. When a U.S. Postal Service facility was built on the site in 1972, the statue was finally carted off to the construction contractor’s equipment yard. It was discovered there in the mid-1970s by a fireman named Harold Adams, who had it moved to a safer location. The Historical Society undertook its restoration in 1987, and its president, Frank Orland, finally gleaned the statue’s identity two years later.
In the 1880s, neo-classical sculpture fell out of vogue as the expressive Romantic style championed by the likes of Auguste Rodin gained popularity. Paris replaced Rome as the center of artistic activity, and Edmonia Lewis faded from view. Not much is known of the last years of her life. Her last major commission was from a Baltimore church for a sculpture titled “Adoration of the Magi” in 1883. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass recorded in his diary an 1887 meeting with Lewis in Rome. The Rosary, an American Catholic magazine, reported that she was still alive as late as 1909. How she lived during that period remains unclear, and there is no known record of her death or burial.
More than 100 years after the prime of her career, Edmonia Lewis holds a place in the pantheon of artists that transcends race and gender. While she was active, she was frequently known as “that Negro artist” or “that woman artist” by admirers and detractors alike, drawing attention away from her skill. Only a fraction of her work has survived, but the respect that work now commands testifies that Lewis’s talents defied the petty suspicions and biases of her critics.
Bearden, Romare, and Harry Henderson, A History of African-American Artists, Pantheon, 1993.
Perry, Regenia A., Free Within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art, Pomegranate, 1992.
Tufts, Eleanor, Our Hidden Heritage: Five Centuries of Women Artists, Paddington Press, 1974.
Art in America, July 1974, pp. 70–71.
Journal of Negro History, July 1968, pp. 201–18.
—Robert R. Jacobson
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