Endowed with talent and tenacity, sculptor Edmonia Lewis courageously defied overwhelming odds to become an artistic pioneer whose work was powerfully informed by her ethnicity and experiences with discrimination and the socio-political issues of the latter nineteenth century. As a member of what the author Henry James called “the strange sisterhood,” Lewis joined other expatriate female sculptors, including Harriet Hosmer and Anne Whitney, in Rome, where she created much of her best work and, in later years, hosted such notables as Frederick Douglass. Though she enjoyed both substantial critical and moderate financial success during her lifetime, her significance in the canon has grown measurably in recent years.
Many of the facts of Lewis’s childhood are tinged with mystery, even the years of her birth and death. A natural marketeer, she carefully crafted an enigmatic persona as a means to commercial promotion and career advancement. Born to an African American father and Chippewa mother in upstate New York and orphaned at an early age, Lewis, known then by the name “Wild Fire,” was raised in nomadic fashion by her mother’s tribe. Her older brother Samuel, having found his own success in the American West, arranged for Lewis to attend a private secondary school and then Oberlin College in Ohio, the nation’s first integrated college. She matriculated in 1859, but never graduated. Her time at Oberlin was marred by controversy, including an accusation, severe beating, and eventual acquittal of attempting to poison two white students.
In 1863, Lewis moved to Boston, where she studied under the master sculptor Edward A. Brackett and was embraced by a circle of influential abolitionists. Her earliest works include a medallion of the abolitionist martyr John Brown and an 1864 bust of Robert Gould Shaw, the leader of a black Civil War regiment; sales of the plaster copies of this latter work financed her inaugural trip to Italy. It was there, first in Florence and then in Rome, that Lewis established her reputation with the creation of works such as the Emancipation statues, The Freedwoman and Her Child (1866; location unknown) and Forever Free (1867; Howard University Collection, Washington, D.C.), as well as a series of figures, particularly The Marriage of Hiawatha (1867), illuminating Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, Song of Hiawatha. Lewis exhibited her massive, two-ton masterwork, The Death of Cleopatra (1876; Smithsonian American Art Museum), at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia to public acclaim. Many of her later works related to biblical themes (the result of her conversion to Catholicism) or portrayed historic figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses S. Grant.
From 1895 on, details of Edmonia Lewis’s life are scarce. She is believed to have lived abroad in England, France, and Italy in her advanced years.
Longfellow’s poem, Song of Hiawatha, was the best-selling poem of the nineteenth century. Given her Native American descent, Lewis found it a meaningful subject and created a series of busts and groupings that portrayed the Ojibway characters, Hiawatha and Minnehaha. Another version of this bust is held by the Newark Museum, New Jersey.
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