Edmonia Lewis was an African-Native American artist born in 1844 whose sculptures defined her as a highly influential BIPOC woman in art history. She grew up in New York and began to garner attention and gain recognition during the Civil War. Most of her professional career as a sculptor was spent in Rome, Italy. By the late 1800s, she stood as the first Black woman who was respected by the American art market of the period.
Edmonia Lewis’ Legacy
Edmonia Lewis is considered the first African American and Native American sculptor that was recognized at a national and international level for her sculpture. The portrayal of her heritage in a neoclassical style was ground-breaking. The themes and issues that she explored in art were expressed in a new way that set her apart from other artists. Here are six sculptures by Edmonia Lewis that exemplify her skillful mastery of the craft and her powerful, visual storytelling abilities.
1. Robert Gould Shaw (1864)
Robert Gould Shaw was one of the first pieces that Edmonia Lewis created. In a Neoclassical style, she crafted a bust statue of Shaw, a Civil War Union army officer known for leading the African American troops. The position he embraced inspired other African Americans to join the cause. Lewis wanted to pay him a tribute due to his abolitionist efforts and the honorable respect that he showed to his men when others would not. The loyalty that Shaw showed his troop would leave a great legacy.
The decision to not mold the accurate historical clothing over his shoulders was intentional. Lewis wanted his figure to be portrayed as timeless. The influence that Shaw has stretches far and wide, so Lewis wanted to honor him through her personal perspective. The sculpture was modeled after a photograph of Shaw’s portrait. Despite some people’s doubts of her abilities, Lewis depicted a very accurate representation of the Colonel. This bust became her first commercial success since the Shaw family commissioned 100 plaster reproductions after they saw the original.
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2. Forever Free (1867)
Forever Free was one of the first pieces of artwork to celebrate the emancipation of all slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation is even inscribed on the base of it. With the money made from creating the bust of Shaw, Lewis was able to afford to move to Rome, where she created this sculpture. Similar to her first piece, this was made in a 19th-century neoclassical style, which emphasized recognizable figures and typical gender stereotypes for the time. One characteristic that makes the piece stand out, however, is the upright, victorious position of the Black man who seems to be commemorating his freedom. Other existing abolitionist sculptures of the time may have shown broken shackles, but the people portrayed were still often kneeling down next to a white savior, like Abraham Lincoln.
The female figure is still shown on her knees, although she is presumably freed as well. This indicates her dependence on the male figure. Another difference between the woman and man is that she does not have signature African American features while he does. Interestingly, this was consistent throughout her career. Female figures were dressed in classical Western European clothing. Edmonia was a trailblazer for many women artists who followed, but she still had to be conscious of what her patrons desired to see. So as we can notice, the artist was not completely free to produce exactly what she would’ve wanted.
3. Hiawatha’s Marriage (1871)
Hiawatha’s Marriage was inspired by the 1855 poem The Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The poem outlines a made-up story based on Native American legends that follow an Indian Ojibwe warrior named Hiawatha. It tells the love story between him and Minnehaha, who comes from a rival tribe of the Dakotas.
Lewis depicted the two characters in this sculpture in their generalized Native American clothing and a necklace, which symbolizes their love in the poem. Similar to Forever Free, Hiawatha appears vaguely Native American while Minnehaha is portrayed as fully Caucasian in a traditional Neoclassical style.
The Roman story of Cupid and Psyche could also help us understand the piece better. Many sculptures that illustrated ancient myths were often showcased in public art collections. Instead of expressing them in a savage way, which was how Native Americans were depicted at the time, Lewis may have been influenced by the Victorian style of showing these popular Greek and Roman myths through sculptures. Again, the man has a more dominant, protective stance over the woman, which aligns with the stereotypes of the time and the storyline of the poem. In the mid-1870s, Lewis produced around five sculptures inspired by this poem, honoring her Native American heritage.
4. Old Arrow Maker (1872), by Edmonia Lewis
Another sculpture in her unofficial series based on The Song of Hiawatha is called the Old Arrow Maker. This one shows Minnehaha and her father, who makes arrowheads of jasper. The father and daughter are both dressed in traditional Native American clothing with the father having recognizable Native American features, typical of Lewis’ sculptures. The piece was made of marble, yet the texture she was able to fabricate reflects the nature of sheepskin and leather moccasins.
As priorly indicated, the Ojibwe and Dakota were rival tribes, who spent years at war with each other. Lewis’ dual heritage fueled a lot of the subjects she explored, including her hope for reconciliation between conflicting groups of people. Her mother was of Chippewa (Ojibwe) descent, which was one reason Lewis was drawn to this poem. We could also interpret the hatred between the tribes as parallel to the hatred between the North and South in the Civil War. The love that grew between the two members of these competing groups could represent Edmonia’s hope for unity in the country. After their marriage, Hiawatha states his wish that old feuds might be forgotten/and old wounds be healed forever. This wish is similar to what Lewis wanted for the nation’s future.
5. Hagar (1875)
Hagar is a sculpture showing the biblical character Hagar, a servant of matriarch Sarah. Sarah was unable to have children and gave Hagar to Abraham to fulfill his prophecy from God that he would be the father of many nations. Although Sarah facilitated this, she became angry when she found out about Hagar’s pregnancy. So, she treated Hagar with contempt with permission granted by Abraham. Hagar escaped to the woods after being physically abused and scorned and was given a message by an angel. She followed the instructions, which sent her back to achieve God’s will and give birth to her son, Ishmael.
Hagar was supposedly Egyptian, but Lewis portrayed her as Caucasian. Her face looks serious and she appears to be praying. The jug at her feet symbolizes her desperate search for water before the angel appeared. As a devout Catholic, this biblical reference was fitting. It could have been used to illustrate the story of all African American female slaves who held fast to their beliefs. Hagar was abused by her masters. Her exposed breast alludes to the sexual assault that was commonly committed upon female slaves.
6. Poor Cupid (1876) by Edmonia Lewis
As stated previously, Hiawatha’s Marriage is thought to have been vaguely modeled after the myth of Cupid and Psyche in addition to the more direct reference to the poem. Many American tourists visiting Rome were drawn to sculptures showing mythological figures, so Lewis recreated these iconic figures on occasion. Poor Cupid, also known as Love Ensnared, is an example of this. The tourists were primarily upper-class citizens who appreciated Victorian sentimentality and frivolity.
Poor Cupid is a small sculpture that portrays Cupid captured by a trap as he reaches down to grab a rose. Typical for a depiction of the god, Cupid is molded as a young, winged boy with long curly hair, holding his traditional quiver. His face however reflects the features of an adult man. His wrist is shown trapped, which gives the title both an ironic and a metaphorical touch. The sculpture was made for the entertainment of tourists, so the anecdote being visually expressed didn’t hold any deeper meaning to Lewis, according to different sources.
Although Edmonia Lewis received major commissions during her career from well-renowned figures like former U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant, her popularity faded with neoclassicism in the late 1880s. The artist was hardly recognized for an extended period of time, but her talent and strength are finally acknowledged today.