(Greenbush, New York, 1844 - 1907, Brook Green, England)
Mary Edmonia Lewis was born in Greenbush (now Rensselaer, across the Hudson River from Albany), New York, on or about the Fourth of July, 1844, the child of a Native American mother and an African- American father. (1) Her parents died when she was about nine, and two of her mother’s sisters raised her among the Mississauga band of Chippewa (also known as Ojibwa) around Niagara Falls, on either side of the border between Canada and the United States. (2) Her older brother, who became a successful gold miner in California, financed her early boarding school education at the short-lived Baptist abolitionist New York Central College in McGrawville. After it closed in 1858, she returned to her aunts and with her brother’s support in 1859 enrolled in the preparatory department of Oberlin College, the first American institution of higher education to admit women of all races. (3)
Lewis studied a variety of subjects, including drawing, but only one signed drawing from this period survives. (4) Her studies went well, although she was challenged by English, having been raised speaking Chippewa, which lacks several consonants that are in the English language. (5) The 15-year-old orphan was also challenged by dominant culture social expectations for young ladies of her day, having grown up in a Native American community unburdened by the Victorian-era decorum of polite white society. Her direct expressions of thoughts and feelings were sometimes considered brusque or indiscrete.
Lewis boarded with twelve other girls, all white, in the home of the retired Rev. John Keep, the Oberlin trustee who had cast the deciding vote to admit women and blacks. (6) Oberlin was a hotbed of abolitionist activity on the eve of the Civil War, and when John Brown’s raid on the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry in October 1859 was suppressed and Brown and his co-conspirators, two of who were from Oberlin, were condemned to death, the town responded with protest meetings. When Brown was hanged, the chapel bell tolled for an hour. A Christmas Day memorial service for the two Oberlin men who were executed was attended by their bereaved parents, Lewis, faculty, and students, indeed most of Oberlin—about a quarter of which whom were free African Americans. Surely the experience was seared into the memory of the young woman of mixed-race heritage whose features captured in a photograph made around 1870 appear more African than Native American. (7)
Race relations in Oberlin were progressive by American nineteenth-century standards, but the town and countryside around it were not free from prejudice, as Lewis soon learned the hard way. (8) The orphan remained in the Keep’s home over Christmas break in 1861, and when two of her housemates returned from their homes in nearby towns for a sleigh-ride date with two young men, the girls accused her of poisoning them with cantharides, or “Spanish fly,” then considered an aphrodisiac, in hot mulled wine Lewis supposedly served them before the ride. How wine got into the collegiate community that required complete abstinence from alcohol was never explained, but the two girls fell ill on the sleigh ride and were reportedly “at death’s door” for days before recovering. Lewis convinced Rev. Keep and the head of Oberlin’s Ladies Department, Mrs. Marianne Dascomb, of her innocence, but the afflicted girls’ parents brought legal charges. Prior to her indictment hearing, Lewis was abducted in the dark outside her home, brutally beaten, and left for dead in the snow. Once her absence was noticed, a search party was hastily formed—threats to her safety being well known—and she was soon found. She recovered, but could not identify her assailants. At her trial, she was successfully defended pro bono by John Mercer Langston, a black Oberlin attorney who later founded Howard Law School and served as a congressman and U.S. consul to Haiti.
The whole ugly incident had negative ramifications for Lewis, Keep, Dascomb, the college, and the community. (9) Moreover, the sexual aspects of the case reverberated in the puritanical religious climate of the college, raising questions about the judgment of Keep and Dascomb. Lewis was subsequently ostracized, accused of petty thievery, and denied the opportunity to register for her final school term by Dascomb, the ultimate authority for women in the school. Lewis left Oberlin in early 1863 without a degree, but with a letter of introduction from Keep to Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.
In Boston, Lewis sought to study sculpture, so Garrison secured a place for her in the studio of sculptor Edward Brackett (1818-1908), who permitted Lewis to make medallions from the bust of John Brown he had modeled based on his visit to Brown’s cell prior to his execution. (10) She soon modeled a posthumous portrait bust of the white Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the commander of the first infantry regiment of African Americans, the 54th Infantry Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers (which included 21 men from Oberlin), that Lewis had seen marching off to war in May 1863. (11) The popular portrait sold a hundred plaster copies, and the proceeds enabled Lewis to sail for Florence, Italy in August 1865 and in 1866 to establish her studio in Rome, where a sizeable community of American expatriate Neoclassic sculptors lived and worked close to the source of marble, local marble artisans, and antique sculptures that served as inspiration and design sources.
Americans on the Grand Tour frequented the studios of Horatio Greenough (1805-1852), Hiram Powers (1805-1873), and William Wetmore Story (1819-1895), the best known American Neoclassic sculptors of the day, as well as those of Lewis, Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908), Anne Whitney (1821-1915), Margaret Foley (1820-1877), Louisa Lander (1826-1923), and Emma Stebbins (1815-1882)—“that strange sisterhood of American ‘lady sculptors’ who Henry James wrote in his biography of Story had, “at one time settled on the seven hills [of Rome] in a white marmorean flock.” (12) Immediately upon her arrival in Rome, Hosmer welcomed Lewis and introduced her to Charlotte Cushman, a successful American actress whose residence in Rome harbored several female artists. Cushman favored women who challenged restrictive attitudes, and for a while she made Lewis her protégé. Hosmer ensconced Lewis in her former studio, which had previously been Antonio Canova’s (Italian, 1757-1822) atelier and thus had historical and fashionable significance. (13)
The short, dark, exotic Lewis appeared cheerfully naïve and quickly became the topic of greatest interest in the most important international art colony in the world at that time. Like the other expatriate American women sculptors in Rome—who collectively constituted an unprecedented group of prominent women artists—Lewis was strong-willed and independent. (14) Her friend, the Boston writer Lydia Maria Child noted her “indomitable spirit of energy and perseverance.” (15) She also described her as brown and slight, “with that quickness and brusqueness of voice and motion which indicates a want of drill in conventional rules of society, but [with] a degree of natural modesty and frankness far more agreeable to me than the uniform smoothness of fashionable manners.” (16) The fledgling artist also impressed Child with her Chippewa indifference to material possessions and her persistence despite impoverished circumstances. The sculptor confided in Child that she had “always wanted to make the form of things. My mother was famous for inventing new patterns for embroidery, and perhaps the same thing is coming out in me.” (17)
Indeed, marvelous things were coming out of Edmonia Lewis. She followed her early portrait medallions and busts of abolitionists with statuary related to her African- American heritage. (18) "Forever Free" (1867-1868), the first sculpture by an African American to celebrate emancipation, featured a freed male slave with broken shackles and a kneeling African- American woman, her hands clasped in a prayer of deliverance.(19) An earlier work, "The Freedwoman and her Child," is now lost, but "Hagar" (1869) survives. (20) It is a nearly life-size figure representing a biblical Egyptian slave who had been freed by Abraham, who then married her, fathered a child with her, and later drove her and their child into the wilderness. Nineteenth-century audiences equated Egyptian with African, so the reference to the cruel system of slavery was clear to the artist’s contemporaries. (21) Less evident were the personal connotations for Lewis, who had been persecuted and expelled from Oberlin, but who kept those experiences to herself. (22)
Henry Tuckerman, one of the most respected historians writing about American art immediately after the Civil War, commented on no specific sculptures made by the artist in her early years in Rome when he published "The Book of the Artists" in 1870, but dwelt instead on her racial identity and her artistic potential, finding:
“in her face the characteristic types of her origin…. [while] grasping in her tiny hand the chisel with which she does not disdain—perhaps with which she is obliged—to work, and with her large, black, sympathetic eyes brimful of simple, unaffected enthusiasm, Miss Lewis is unquestionably the most interesting representative of our country in Europe. Interesting not alone because she belongs to a contemned [sic, i.e., condemned?] and hitherto oppressed race, which labors under the imputation of artistic incapacity…. Miss Lewis is by no means a prodigy; she has great natural genius, originality, earnestness, and a simple, genuine taste. Her works are yet those of a girl. She has read 'Evangeline', and some others of Longfellow’s poems, and has caught from them a girlish sentimentality, but has rather improved upon her author’s conceptions in the process of giving them shape and reality. By and by, when the horizon of her knowledge becomes more expanded, and her grasp on it firmer, she will leave the prettiness of poems, and give us Pocahontas, Logan, Pontiac, Tecumseh, Red Jacket, and, it may be, Black Hawk and Osceola…or behind them all the great dramatic characters, Montezuma, Guatimozin, Huascar, and Atahualpa…. (23)
Clearly, Tuckerman expected the multi-racial artist to create portraits of famous Native Americans in the Grand Manner—in effect, to acquit her race and to promote its advocates—much as he expected American expatriate sculptors to uphold the nation’s artistic reputation within the international community of Rome. (24)
Soon, Tuckerman’s “dusky maiden” had an opportunity to take center stage before an audience back home in America. She submitted marbles of Hiawatha’s "The Wooing of Hiawatha" and "The Marriage of Hiawatha" as well as terra cotta busts of Longfellow and abolitionists John Brown and Senator Charles Sumner, plus small marbles of plump children entitled "Awake and Asleep" (both 1874, San Jose Public Library, San Jose, California) for display in the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. Those works were accepted, but it was her life-size marble "Death of Cleopatra" (1875, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.) that claimed headlines. Unlike William Wetmore. Story’s "Cleopatra" (modeled 1858, carved 1860 and later, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.), in which the conquered African queen stoically contemplates her subsequent suicide, Lewis depicted the Egyptian royal in realistic death throes caused by the bite of a venomous asp still held in her right hand. Some modern viewers may see the realism of the African queen’s death as a contrast to the cerebral idealism of the white, male, elder statesman of American Neoclassic sculpture, an autobiographical reference to Lewis, or a reflection of the hurt heaped on the female mulatto artist by prejudicial audiences for more than a decade. A contemporary critic, J. S. Ingram, wrote in "Centennial Exposition":
The most remarkable piece of sculpture in the American section [which included 162 of the 673 sculptures on display] was perhaps that in marble of 'The Death of Cleopatra' by Edmonia Lewis…. The great queen was seated in a chair, her head drooping over her left shoulder…. The face was full of pain, for some reason—perhaps to intensify the expression—the classic [i.e., neoclassic] standard had been departed from….” (25)
W. J. Clark commented in "Great American Sculptures" that, “This is not a beautiful work, but it is a very original and striking one, and it deserve[s] particular comment, as its ideals [are] so radically different from those adopted by Story…. The effects of death are represented with such skill as to be absolutely repellent….” (26) Unfortunately for Lewis, the portion of Clark’s commentary most often repeated was the “repellent” part. The sculpture did not sell at the Centennial so Lewis shipped it to Chicago for the Chicago Interstate Exhibition in 1878. It was eventually acquired by a prominent Chicago gambler who placed it over the grave of his favorite racehorse, “Cleopatra,” before the grandstand of his racetrack where it stood until nature and vandals deteriorated the soft marble almost beyond recognition. Recently rediscovered and restored, it is now in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, reflecting in microcosm the death and resurrection of Edmonia Lewis’s fame. (27)
Shortly after the Centennial Exhibition, the artist disappeared from the international art scene. Although she had made six trips from Rome to the U.S. between 1868 and 1878 to promote her art, traveling as far as San Francisco in 1873 with the additional, unsuccessful, goal of finding her brother, she ceased to travel to the U.S except for a trip to New York in 1898. (28) She apparently continued to make sculpture in Rome for many years, but her later artwork is not as well documented as her earlier work. (29) In 1887, Frederick Douglass spent some time with the artist in her Rome studio and she accompanied him and his wife on a trip to Naples. (30) Lewis subsequently relocated to England, where she died from Bright’s Disease (a kidney ailment) on September 17, 1907 at Brook Green, Hammersmith, an agricultural area west of Kensington on London’s outskirts. (31) According to edmonialewis.com (accessed 25 June 2012), “Her will specified a Catholic funeral and burial at Kensal Green, London. It named a Catholic priest as her executor and main beneficiary. At the time of her death her estate was worth about sixty thousand of today's dollars.”
(1) See http://www.edmonialewis.com/passport.htm (accessed 25 June 2012). Kirsten Pai Buick, "Child of the Fire" (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 4, cites this passport application but acknowledges that Lewis provided inconsistent biographical information during her lifetime. See also Lewis’s biographer Marilyn Richardson, “Edmonia Lewis’ The Death of Cleopatra: Myth and Identity,” International Review of African American Art 12 no. 2 (1995), 44; and Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson, A History of African-American Artists from 1792 to the Present (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993), 54. EdmoniaLewis.com, Buick, "Child of the Fire," and Bearden and Henderson, "African-American Artists" are the standard references for Lewis at this time. Another monograph is forthcoming: Harry Henderson and Albert Henderson, "The Indomitable Spirit of Edmonia Lewis: A Narrative Biography," due Fall, 2012, contains more than 50 illustrations, two maps, more than 800 notes, bibliography, and list of more than 100 works by Edmonia Lewis.
(2) Bearden and Henderson, "African-American Artists," 55.
(3) Nancy G. Heller, "Women Artists: An Illustrated History" (New York: Abbeville, 1987), 86; Bearden and Henderson, "African-American Artists," 56.
(4) Marcia Goldberg, “New Discoveries: A Drawing by Edmonia Lewis,” American Art Journal (Nov. 1977), 104 and “More Information on Edmonia Lewis,” American Art Journal (May 1978), 112.
(5) Bearden and Henderson, "African-American Artists," 56.
(6) Bearden and Henderson, "African-American Artists," 56
(7) The photographcarte de visite is illustrated in Bearden and Henderson, "African-American Artists," 77; Buick, "Child of the Fire," plate 1, and other sources.
(8) Bearden and Henderson, "African-American Artists," 56-60.
(9) Bearden and Henderson, "African-American Artists," 486, note 30.
(10) Bearden and Henderson, "African-American Artists," 60, illustrates Brackett’s bust.
(11) Bearden and Henderson, "African-American Artists," 61-2.
(12) Henry James, "William Wetmore Story and His Friends" (London: Blackwell, 1903), vol. 1, p. 257.
(13) Bearden and Henderson, "African-American Artists," 64.
(14) William Gerdts, "American Neo-Classic Sculpture: The Marble Resurrection" (New York: Viking Press, 1973), 46; see also pp. 132-3 for Gerdts’ assessment of Lewis and her oeuvre—scholarship that predates most of the recent discoveries about the artist’s life and work.
(15) Bearden and Henderson, African-American Artists, note 47, cites Child, in "Broken Fetter," a mid-nineteenth-century abolitionist periodical.
(16) Child, from Broken Fetter, quoted in Bearden and Henderson, "African American Artists," 61.
(17) Child, from Broken Fetter, quoted in Bearden and Henderson, "African American Artists," 61.
(18) Bearden and Henderson, "African American Artists," 62, illustrates a marble bust of Colonel Shaw now in the Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket, a commission from Shaw’s sister which was cut in marble in Rome in 1866-67. This may have been her first marble carved in Italy. It is notable that the pupils of Shaw’s eyes are carved in the marble—a realistic feature that may have been second nature to Lewis, although most neoclassic marble portraits do not have the pupils cut because it was not known then that such details in antique Greek statuary (the primary design source for Neoclassic sculpture) had been painted. She also carried to Rome a commission for a marble copy of her portrait of Diocletian Lewis, a prominent homeopathic healer and physical education advocate for women.
(19) "Forever Free," 1867-68, 41 ½ inches high, illustrated in Bearden and Henderson, "African-American Artists," 65, is in the collection of Howard University Art Gallery.
(20) "Hagar," 1869, 52 5/8 inches high, illustrated in Bearden and Henderson, "African-American Artists," 68, is in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
(21) When Lewis exhibited the sculpture in Chicago in 1870, she advertised it as the work of “the young and gifted colored sculptor, of Rome, Italy.” Bearden and Henderson, "African-American Artists," 69, point out that this may be the first instance of a black artist promoting themselves as a black artist.
(22) Bearden and Henderson, "African American Artists," 61.
(23) Henry T. Tuckerman, "The Book of the Artists" (New York: Putnam and Son, 1870), 604.
(24) For more on the Grand Manner, see "American Portraiture in the Grand Manner, 1720-1920" (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1981.
(25) Ingram quoted in Bearden and Henderson, "African-American Artists," 73-74.
(26) William J. Clark, "Great American Sculptures" (Philadelphia: Gebbie & Barrie, 1878), quoted in Bearden and Henderson, African-American Artists, 74.
(27) Stephen J. May, “The Object at Hand: The circuitous route of Edmonia Lewis' masterwork, a controversial portrayal of Cleopatra at the moment of death, included stints as decor in a Chicago saloon and as a grave marker for a racehorse,” "Smithsonian," Sept. 1996 (accessed online 27 June 2012 at http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/object_sep96.html#ixzz1z0K7JgjV)
(28) Lewis was in New York around Niagara in 1868 (Bearden and Henderson, "African-American Artists," 70-1); in Chicago in August 1870 (ibid., 69); in Boston in 1871 (ibid., 71); in San Francisco in 1873 (ibid., 71); at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, and in the U.S. in the summer of 1878. The Sept. 1898 trip to New York is mentioned at http://www.edmonialewis.com/chronology.htm (accessed 9 July 2012).
(29) See the chronology at EdmoniaLewis.com (accessed 9 July 2012).
(30 Bearden and Henderson, "African-American Artists," 76.
(31) For Lewis’s death notice in the Catholic weekly, "The Tablet," 17 September 1907, see http://www.edmonialewis.com/death_of_mary_edmonia_lewis.htm.