One of the many amazing artists and sculptures that should be a part of the canon and recognised for her amazing abilities as a sculptor is Edmonia Lewis, that was normally a male dominated profession. As many of the key artists in the canon of art history are white men, with no diversity. They didn’t particularly favour women, the LGBT or other ethnicities, because of the society viewed them as second-class people of little use. It decides what artists had made significant impact to art. Edmonia Lewis is often an overlooked female artist from history, and not easily recognised by the average person. She was the first African American Sculptor, which is important, as a representative of the African American.
When thinking of greatest sculptors from history, we usually think of people such as Donatello, Michelangelo, and Bernini. This is further regurgitated, when looking articles of great sculptures from as recent as 2022, it usually contains white men artists. (Stewart,2022). white men who didn’t have sexist societal expectations against them.
Lewis on the other hand, had a difficult life because of her skin colour. She was mixed race of African American and Native American heritage. strange story of fame and lost fortunes. – (George, 2022)
She had to break many obstacles in order to make it into the profession of being a sculptor. Being a woman of colour in the mid to late 1800s, many of her works were lost and forgotten. Karen Lemmey a curator at Smithsonian said about Lewis “there’s still remarkably little known about her” and “Everything that we know about her really must be taken with a grain of salt” (George, Sculptor Edmonia Lewis Shattered Gender and Race Expectations in 19th-Century America, 2022, p.4-5)
it wasn’t until recently did she get some recognition. When she moved to Boston, she had a mentor called Edward Brackett taught her some lessons and helped her in setting up her own sculpture studio to work from.
Born on 4th July, New York 1844 and died in 1907, and worked as a sculptor within the Neoclassicism period. Lewis experienced racism throughout her life due to her mixed-race heritage. She faced discrimination both in her educational and professional pursuits.
In her early life Lewis grew up in in the Village of Greenbush in NY after her brother Samuel was born in 1832, but by the age of 9, unfortunately both her parents had died. So, she and her brother then relocated to live with their aunts, it is implied that they lived working class as they “made and sold baskets, moccasins, blouses, and souvenirs for tourists” at the Niagra Falls in Buffalo. (Kirschke, Women Artists of the Harlem Renaissance, 2014, p.24) Then in 1856, she was enrolled to a school at New York Central College in McGrawville by her brother, who was then financially supporting her. This school was about abolitionism. Some of the things they pledged was, common origin, equality, unity, and the right of women to education across all levels of education. (Kirschke, 2014) She remained there for three years. She left afterwards as according to Lewis she was “Declared to be wild,” she is think-skinned. This was where she got the nickname ‘wildfire’ (Kirschke, 2014).
In 1859, with the help of her brother’s aid she was sent to Oberlin College in Ohio until 1863. She was around 15 years old. Her brother chose for her to go to college because he wanted her to have an education, and to be able to make something out of herself. Additionally, for a person of colour to have an education it “signified the educated person’s right to be human.” (Kirschke,2014) As for most African American women they only had few choices. These usually be “domestic servants, operators of small businesses or educators.” (Kirschke, Women Artists of the Harlem Renaissance, 2014, p.25) She went to Oberlin because “it was the first school to accept women and allow the mixing of ethnicities” (Powers, who was Edmonia ‘Wildfire’ Lewis? 2020, p.4) So, this would have been fitting for her as a person of colour to go to this College. It was there, when she expressed an interest at Oberlin, and up drawing classes.
But Lewis had turbulent few years at this School. Although, Oberlin made the right steps into giving equal opportunities for women and other ethnicities Lewis still experienced discrimination and racism on a daily basis. Whilst studying there in 1862 she faced injustice, as written in the journal; Negro History “In the winter of 1862 scandal swept the village Oberlin, Ohio. Mary Edmonia Lewis, an Oberlin College Student, was accused of poisoning two of her friends with drugged wine. Over the next few weeks she was beaten by vigilantes. “The beatings were quite severe and was bedridden for days and days. (Geoffrey, John Mercer Langston, and the Case of Edmonia Lewis: Oberlin, The Journal of Negro History, 1862, p.201) Of course after investigations were done, she was innocent of this scandal. This journal in the same page goes on to describe her as “Unusually talented and somewhat exotic ‘young lady of colour’” and “Her Indian name was Wildfire.” (Geoffrey, 1862) This shows that white men at the time thought people of colour as untalented, which is a racist idea.
In her drawing classes that’s when Lewis, started to learn drawing skills. There she drew a beautiful illustration for her friend Clara Steele, (in 1862) a drawing of a muse Urania. She may have chosen specifically to draw Urania because it’s the Goddess of Heaven. Who is always young and beautiful. This was a present to celebrate her marriage. This would have been an appropriate gift for her friend. This was Edmonia Lewis’ first unentitled known piece of work.
Unfortunately, almost a year after her trial for poisoning of her friends she was again accused of crime. This time it was the theft of artist’s materials. But because there wasn’t enough evidence of this crime, she was dismissed from the trial. Thanks to this ordeal, she wasn’t allowed to register for next year’s course and graduate. (Kirschke,2014)
As she was unable to graduate, Lewis relocated to Boston, in the early of 1864. There she went to pursue a career as a sculptor. This when slowly her career began to flourish. During her time in Boston, she was interviewed by many abolitionists like Lydia Maria Child, Laura Curtis Bullard, and Anna Quincy Waterston as they had “the power of access to the printed word,” because of this they were able to control the narrative of Edmonia Lewis. (Kirschke, Women Artists of the Harlem Renaissance, 2014, p.40) But in these articles Lewis said that “some praise me because I’m a coloured girl”, as she told Lydia Maria Child in her interview, in 1864. And she didn’t particularly like this, probably because it’s highlighting as if she can’t be intelligent for a person of colour. (Kirschke, 2014)
She didn’t have much success until she started creating and selling medallions made of plaster and clay. These medallions had portraits of famed abolitionists who were advocating on behalf of African Americans and Native Americans. These included john Brown and Wendell Phillips. (George 2022)
In 1865, Edmonia Lewis then moved to Rome. At the time many sculptors found success in Rome. At one point being the centre of art, when it had a lot of power. This is where she became involved with the American Women Sculptors, and she began to sculpt in marble. According to the Smithsonian American Museum on their website about her they said, “Lewis did all her own stonework out of fear that if she didn’t, her work would not be accepted as original.” This may have been because white people at the time saw people of colour unintelligent. Whilst other white men had the advantage, of having assistances working on their sculpture, with full credit of the work. So, it was better for Lewis to be working alone on her sculptures. Also, “Lewis sculpted biblical scenes and figural works dealing with her Native American heritage and the oppression of Black people.” Within her sculptures/art, Lewis would represent African American and Native American subjects. And of course, African Tribal Art subjects, and subjects of female femininity/freedom.
The image above is of a marble bust portrait of Anna Quincy Waterstone. She was one of Edmonia Lewis’ patrons who helped her allot during her career. This patron had written a poem about Lewis. “Tis fitting that a daughter of the race Whose chains are breaking should receive a gift. So rare as genius. Neither power nor place, Fashion or wealth, pride, custom, caste nor hue. Can arrogantly claim what God doth lift. Above these chances, and bestows on few.”
Excerpt from “Edmonia Lewis,” a poem by Anna Quincy Waterston, 1864
It is clear that from this poem Waterstone had a lot of respect for Lewis
The image above is called The Death of Cleopatra. Made from marble in 1876. This is one of Lewis’ most well-known sculpture that was hidden for over 100 years old before being donated to the Smithsonian Museum. It was first exhibited in 1876 in Philadelphia, at the Centennial Exhibition. This sculpture depicts of Queen Cleopatra moments after death of a snake bite. It’s a very powerful piece. It was a success as “a significant achievement in late neoclassical sculpture by an American artist of black and Native American decent”. (Richardson, The Death of Cleopatra: myth and identity. The International review of African American art, 1995, p.36)“Some people were blown away by it. They thought it was a masterful marble sculpture,” says Lemmey. Others disagreed, criticizing its graphic and disturbing image of the moment when Cleopatra killed herself. (George,Sculptor Edmonia Lewis Shattered Gender and Race Expectations in 19th-Century America, 2022, p. 14) After it was put away, this sculpture had several journeys before being put into the Smithsonian Museum. It was at one point a Centre piece at a Chicago Saloon. Then it was sold to a man called Blind John Condon, and he put it over a former racetrack horse’s grave. It was in several other places before it was donated to its final resting place.
Atkins,H. Beyond Male Western Art: 3 Overlooked Female Artists from History. History Hit.com. 2022.
Blodgett, G. John Mercer Langston and the case of Edmonia Lewis, Oberlin, 1862. The journal of Negro History, JSTOR, 1968
Buick,K. The ideal works of Edmonia Lewis: invoking and inverting autobiography. JSTOR, 1995
George. A. A sculptor Edmonia Lewis shattered Gender and Race Expectations in 19th Century America, Smithsonian Magazine, 2022
Kirschke, AH. Women Artists of the Harlem Renaissance, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2014
Powers, H. Who was Edmonia ‘Wildfire’ Lewis? Artuk.org, 2020
Richardson, M. Edmonia Lewis, The Death of Cleopatra: Myth and Identity. The International Review of African American Art. 1995
Stewart, J. 15 Great Sculptors who changed the History of Art. My Modern Met.com, 2022
Vendryes. R.M. The Journal of African American History. JSTOR, 2012
Smithsonian American Art Museum