WOMEN IN ART – 12TH INSTALLMENT
Something I am enjoying about researching this series is discovering artists I was not aware of, but I should have been. Edmonia Lewis is one of these.
There isn’t much known about her early life – she was born around 1845 in upstate New York. Her father was African American or Haitian and her mother was part American Indian, possibly Chippewa. Her parents died when she was nine years old, and at that time her aunts adopted her and her brother. She helped her aunts sell baskets, moccasins, blouses and the like to tourists visiting Niagara Falls. At this time, she went by her Native American name Wildfire (her brother was Sunshine). Her brother was much older and left for California in 1852, but he sent money back for her care. In 1856 she enrolled in the New York Central College, which was a Baptist abolitionist school. Later, with the help of her brother and abolitionists, she went to Oberlin College when she was 15 and changed her name to Mary Edmonia Lewis. Interestingly, at this time Oberlin College was one of the first higher learning institution in the U.S. to admit both women and people of different ethnicities. This is where she discovered art! She was there from 1859-1863.
At this point, she moved to Boston and studied with the neoclassical sculptor Edward Bracket – a moderately successful sculptor that specialized in marble portrait busts. However, his clients were some of the leading abolitionists of the day, Longfellow and John Brown among them. It was at this time she made her first sale – a sculpture of women’s hands she sold for $8.
She met Union Colonel Robert Shaw, the commander of an African American regiment from Massachusetts. She created a bust of his likeness and the Shaw family purchased it. Always resourceful, she made plaster cast reproduction of it and sold 100 at $15 apiece.
She was inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha and made several pieces based on its leading characters, off which he drew from Native American legend.
Because of the popularity of her works, she was able to afford a trip to Rome in 1866. On her passport it was written:
“M. Edmonia Lewis is a Black girl sent by subscription to Italy having displayed great talents as a sculptor.”
She spent most of the rest of her life in Rome – working in marble, but focusing on themes and images relating to Black and American Indian people. Working in Rome inspired and influenced her work which continued in the classical style. For instance, instead of clothing her subjects in modern day clothing, she put them in drapes and capes.
She was part of a circle of expatriate artists among them Nathaniel Hawthorne, Longfellow, Harriet Beecher Stowe – all of whom were living in Rome at the time.
Her work sold for huge commissions – it was reported in 1873 in the New Orleans Picayune she had accepted two $50,000 commissions. Her studio actually became a tourist destination in Rome!
She participated in the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and created the 3000+ pound marble sculpture The Death of Cleopatra, showing the queen in the throes of death.
The sculpture was very popular in the exposition, but interestingly it disappeared. After being placed in storage. It was found in a race track in Illinois during World War II atop the grave of a horse named Cleopatra. The grounds ultimately became a shopping mall and the sculpture was moved to a work yard. At some point, a group of well-meaning Boy Scouts actually painted over it. It was eventually given to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1994 and restored.
She was so popular, former US President USS Grant commissioned her to do his portrait in 1877.
As the neoclassical style diminished in style, so did Lewis’s popularity. She began creating altarpieces for Roman Catholic patrons. She eventually moved to London and not much is known about her later years. It was often thought she died in Rome, but it has been speculated she was buried in San Francisco. But it appears she may have died in near London in 1907 of Bright’s disease.
Even though there are some holes in her history, it is still fascinating! Her life is still being researched and her work is gaining in popularity again.