Edmonia Lewis was an African Native-American sculptor born in 1844 who lived in a time when being a woman and BIPOC artist in the United States was rare and challenging. Her parents died young and she became dependent on her aunts and her brother for support. Because of her brother’s financial success, she was able to attend college, only to be discriminated against as one of the few Black students. After making the decision to leave, or being kicked out as some presume, Lewis made the move to Rome to pursue sculpting. She faced less prejudice there and joined a community of other American artists. She became a familiar name in the art world, and although her popularity decreased later in her life, her legacy continues.
Early Life of Edmonia Lewis
Many details about Edmonia Lewis’ early life can’t be fully proven, due to a lack of records. Lewis herself might have provided ambiguous information, surrounding herself in mystery. She even intentionally stated her birth year to be either 1842, 1844, or 1854. Her confirmed date of birth is, however, around July 4, 1844. Greenbush, NY is believed to be her place of birth and she grew up primarily in Albany, with some stating that her early years were spent in Newark, NJ.
Catherine Mike Lewis was her mother, and she was African-Native American, of Mississauga Ojibwe, and of African American descent. She was a talented weaver and craftswoman. It’s unclear who her father was, but sources state that it was either the Afro-Haitian valet Samuel Lewis or the African-Native American writer Robert Benjamin Lewis.
She became an orphan at an early age and lived with her two aunts with her half-brother Samuel near Niagara Falls, NY. This is where she was given the name Wildfire. During this time, she sold Ojibwe baskets, moccasins, and embroidered blouses to tourists with her aunts. Her brother had built a solid financial foundation after moving to California and following the California gold rush. The economic success Samuel achieved allowed her to enroll in a pre-college program in 1856 at New York Central College, a Baptist abolitionist school. At about 15 years old, she attended Oberlin Academy Preparatory School and Oberlin College three years later. Oberlin was one of the first universities to allow women and people of color to attend.
Racism at School and Beginnings as a Sculptor
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As one of only thirty students of color, Lewis experienced daily racism and discrimination. In 1862, she was accused of poisoning two of her classmates and was horribly beaten in a field by white vigilantes because of the incident. However, charges were dropped because no poison was found in the victims’ bodies. She had been thriving in arts and excelling in drawing. However, her experience after this unjust treatment was defined by isolation due to prejudice. A year after being falsely targeted, she was accused of stealing the college’s art supplies. The evidence shows that Lewis either left on her own accord or was banished from enrolling right before graduation.
After this tragic period of time, she moved to Boston in 1864 with the help of her brother and began training under the sculptor Edward Brackett, introduced to her by the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Three other male sculptors rejected her as a student before Brackett agreed to work with her. One of his methods of instruction included providing her with fragments of sculptures that she would need to replicate in clay. She began to create her own sculpting tools and sold her first piece of a woman’s hand. In 1864, she organized her first solo exhibition in her studio.
She took inspiration from abolitionists and Civil War heroes such as John Brown and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. The bust she sculpted of the commander was bought by the Shaw family. Lewis became a popular figure for significant abolitionist women in Boston and NY that they liked to interview or write about. Articles about her could be found in abolitionist journals like Broken Fetter, the Christian Register, and the Independent. Although she didn’t mind the exposure, she disliked the fact that some journalists were taking advantage of her in order to prove that they believed in human rights.
Edmonia’s Life in Rome
With the money she made from sculpting busts of famous abolitionists, Edmonia traveled to London, Paris, and Florence. She eventually moved to Rome in 1866. Sculptor Hiram Powers provided her space in his studio. She also ended up using the former studio of the famous Italian sculptor Antonio Canova. She joined a flourishing community of American artists and got in touch with other sculptors like Harriet Hosmer. Boston actress Charlotte Cushman and the abolitionist Maria Weston Chapman. In Rome, she stated that she found a social atmosphere where she was not constantly reminded of her race. In her words, the land of liberty had no room for a colored sculptor.
Italy was a less racist environment where Lewis could thrive as a Black artist. Even her Catholic faith was more accepted there. She began working with marble in a neoclassical style, focusing on African American and Native American people dressed in non-contemporary robes. Traditionally, Italian sculptors would be hired to wax models in marble for artists, but Lewis demanded she does all the work herself. It was typical for female sculptors to be looked down upon by men for allegedly not creating their work themselves. She took a part in the process of transferring plaster models to finished marble because of financial reasons, but she also wanted the empowerment of producing her own work as a woman in a male-dominated field.
One of the best-known pieces by Edmonia Lewis is the 3,015-pound marble sculpture called The Death of Cleopatra. The piece was shown at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Cleopatra had been represented many times in art, while death was often portrayed in a clean, stylized Victorian way. However, Lewis controversially sculpted a more explicit, messier version of death that the public was not used to seeing. Many were shocked by Lewis’ depiction of such a recognizable figure and thousands of people visited the exhibition in order to see the spectacle with their own eyes.
One interpretation of The Death of Cleopatra states that Lewis produced the piece in direct response to what the Centennial Exposition stood for. The first official world fair was made to celebrate one hundred years of the country being unified in freedom and the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Lewis seems to have subtly referenced emancipation. Even though the piece was widely admired and praised for the brave way of depicting Cleopatra’s death, the sculpture was lost for an extended period of time. Finally, in 1994, it was donated to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, damaged from years of negligence.
Edmonia Lewis’ Later Years
Edmonia Lewis was always taking initiative. She created sculptures preemptively without commissions and sent unsolicited pieces to patrons asking to have funds raised for materials and shipping. Her motivation and determination led to commissions offering up to $50,000 in payment. Tourists would travel to come and see her studio. Her name became very well-known during her lifetime. Lewis even received opportunities to create a bust of former U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant in 1877 and abolitionist senator Charles Sumner in 1895.
Her popularity decreased during the late 1880s as Neoclassicism lost its major following. She passed away in 1907 in London, where she moved in 1901. Before moving to London, Lewis lived in Paris from 1896 to 1901. Not much is known about her later years. Some even question whether she died in London, thinking that she might have died in Rome or California. It’s believed that she worked as a sculptor until the end of her life, creating marble altarpieces and busts influenced by Catholicism.
Lewis primarily sculptured white, European figures to avoid her work being defined as self-portraits by her mainly white audience. She had to stay conscious about how her identity was being viewed by the public and the ease at which her artwork could be misinterpreted. Lewis is considered the first African-Native American sculptor ever to be globally recognized within Western art history. The fact that she was commissioned to create works for the white aristocratic community was a major accomplishment.
Although she’s not as widely known today as other artists, her influence still lives on. Her works are showcased in famous museums like the Howard University Gallery of Art, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Baltimore Museum of Art.