NAME: Mary Edmonia Lewis
DATE OF BIRTH: Edmonia's birth is unknown. Different accounts state she was born in 1840, 1844 or 1845. At one point, she claimed she was born in 1854. She said her given name was "Wild Fire" by her mother, a Chippewa Indian. (Edmonia began and perpetuated many of the myths surrounding her own origins.)
PLACE OF BIRTH: Historians are unclear of her birthplace. She claimed to be born in Greenbrush, New York, near Albany, but she also said in another account that she was born in Greenhigh, Ohio. One researcher suggests she was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1844 to middle-class immigrants from the West Indies.
FAMILY BACKGROUND: In a March 1866 interview, published in the London Athenæum, Edmonia claimed her father was a free black from the West Indies and her mother was a "wild Indian ... born in Albany ... of copper color and with straight black hair ... [who] wandered with her people, whose habits she could not forget" and thus Edmonia and her brother were "brought up in the same wild manner." She said her parents died when she was very young and she was then raised by her mother's tribe, leading a "wandering life, fishing, swimming and making moccasins" until she was 12 years old. Researchers have found a man described in an Indian Bureau agent's letter as "colr. man named Lewis," as well as a marriage between an Ojibway (Chippewa) Indian named Catherine and a free African-American named John Mike, who lived on an Indian reservation in what is now Mississauga, Ontario -- leading them to surmise these might be Edmonia's mother's parents.
Edmonia had an older brother, Samuel W. Lewis, whom she claimed his given name was "Sunrise." He was 12 years older than she and had gone west for the Gold Rush, accruing wealth through real-estate investments and becoming a prominent citizen of Bozeman, Montana. His account differs from hers, saying he assumed Edmonia's guardianship after the parents died. Another note is that it wasn't until 1864 that the first recorded mention of Edmonia's heritage appeared, through an interview-article by Lydia Maria Child in her abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. In claiming her given name as "Wild Fire" and describing her mother and herself as wild, Edmonia was probably creating the persona for her personality, which she adhered to and insisted upon throughout her career -- of never being tamed, restrained or contained. See this commentary also about the name "Wild Fire."
EDUCATION: Samuel said, when he went west, he arranged for Edmonia to board with a Captain Mills and provided tuition for her to attend a local grammar school in New York. Then he enrolled her at New York Central College, a Baptist abolitionist secondary school in McGrawville, New York. In 1859, Samuel arranged for Edmonia to attend Oberlin College's Young Ladies Preparatory Department. Founded by abolitionists in 1835, Oberlin College was the first in the nation to admit women and African-Americans.
ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Edmonia Lewis surpassed exorbitant odds to become the first African-American, and Native American, female sculptor -- and was the first such artist to celebrate her racial identity. Her fame and artistic achievement shocked and mortified those who claimed that Negroes lacked the capacity for intelligence and fine art, particularly because Edmonia insisted on standing next to her works in photographs and extensively explaining them. She combined a unique blend of talent, emotion and perspective, and often sculpted those who were heroes to her; leaders in the abolitionist movement and such courageous women as Cleopatra and Hagar, maid to Abraham's wife, Sarah.
While at Oberlin College, in January 1862, Edmonia was accused of poisoning two white female students, who also boarded at John Keep's home (he was a retired Theologian and Oberlin trustee). While awaiting trial, she was seized and beaten so viciously that she was bedridden for weeks. Edmonia was defended in court by John Mercer Langston, an Oberlin graduate and the first African-American admitted to the Ohio bar. She was acquitted and carried from the courtroom on the shoulders of supportive friends, mostly white, and resumed her studies.
In September, Edmonia signed her earliest known surviving work, a drawing for a self-titled statue (which, it appears, she never sculpted). In early 1863, she was accused of stealing brushes, paints and a picture frame. One account says Oberlin denied her final term and graduation, and that she met the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who advised her to head east. Other accounts just say she decided to leave to pursue sculpting. At any rate, she did leave Oberlin before completing her degree. With her brother's financial help, Edmonia moved to Boston to study with master sculptor Edward A. Brackett. John Keep gave her a letter of introduction to abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison. Through him, she met many wealthy and influential Boston abolitionists, including Lydia Maria Child, who befriended her.
Edmonia became impatient with the apprenticeship; she was eager to start sculpting. Her brother rented her a studio space and she had a sign made for the door, reading "Edmonia Lewis, Artist." She created a medallion of abolitionist martyr John Brown, which had some commercial success among abolitionists. Then, in 1864, she sculpted a bust of Robert Gould Shaw, who had died while leading an all-black regiment in the battle of Fort Wagner. It was exhibited at the Soldiers' Relief Fair that year, and combined with the article Lydia wrote in The Liberator, Edmonia sold 100 plaster copies of this bust. With that income, and her brother's help, she embarked on her dream of studying and working in Italy -- but a month beforehand, she went to Richmond, Virginia, to help freed slaves (the Civil War ended in April of that year).
Edmonia first went to Florence, where she was welcomed and encouraged by America's most famous sculptor, Hiram Powers. Next, she went to Rome, the international center at the time of writers, poets and artists. Wealthy American visitors always toured the artists' studios and often either purchased or commissioned some artwork. Charlotte Cushman was a well-known actress in this community of artists, and she introduced Edmonia at her celebrated social gatherings, plus directed her wealthy friends to Edmonia's studio, which formerly had been used by the great Italian sculptor Antonio Canova. Her studio did indeed become a required stop for wealthy art patrons.
Many female sculptors lived and worked in Rome at that time: Harriet Hosmer, Louisa Lander, Anne Whitney, Margaret Foley, Vinnie Ream and Emma Stebbins. Edmonia was readily accepted into this community, which American novelist Henry James referred to as "that strange sisterhood." In particular, Harriet and Anne took special interest in Edmonia's work. To dispel her own fear that people would not believe she was capable of such work, Edmonia did all her own carving early in her career. Her contemporaries generally modelled a conceptual sculpture, then let Italian artisans carve the marble. She created her first emancipation statue, The Freedwoman and Her Child, then she started on a model for The Morning of Liberty (later called Forever Free). She created Preghiera, a figure she later added to Forever Free. In addition, she opened a showroom on Via della Frezza.
In the winter of 1866-67, Charlotte Cushman financed Edmonia's first full-scale marble work, The Wooing of Hiawatha (also called The Old Arrow-Maker and His Daughter), which was inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's popular poem, Song of Hiawatha. Charlotte purchased the sculpture and donated it to the Boston YMCA, hoping to draw attention to Edmonia's talent. (The YMCA did not accept the sculpture until the following December, 1867.) The interview-article in the Athenaeum in 1866, telling her story of a nomadic Indian childhood as "Wild Fire," helped raise interest in the piece, as well as her companion sculpture, The Wedding (Marriage) of Hiawatha. When she later learned that Longfellow was visiting Rome, she studied his face on the street, then sketched him and sculpted a bust that the poet's family praised. She also created individual busts of Hiawatha and Minnehaha.
Edmonia finished Forever Free in 1868 and sent it to wealthy abolitionist Samuel Sewall in Boston. Lydia Maria Child scolded her for sculpting it into marble without a commission, and eventually Lydia withdrew her support. Edmonia was honored the following year when the sculpture was presented to Rev. Leonard Grimes, a leading black abolitionist. She also sculpted Hagar in the Wilderness in 1868, shortly after becoming Catholic. While many artists depicted Hagar (Sarah's Egyptian servant, who bore Abraham's son Ishmael, in the Torah, Q'uran and Bible) as a symbol of slavery, Edmonia described hers as the moment when Hagar's despair is relieved by the Angel Gabriel bringing forth the water spring.
She did not have a buyer for Hagar, so Edmonia rented an exhibition room in Chicago's Farwell Hall, through the help of a local businessman. She advertised in the Chicago Tribune, inviting the curious to see the statue for a 25-cent fee, and describing herself as "the young and gifted colored sculptress from Rome." Hundreds viewed the piece, and eventually she sold it for $6,000. During this time, Edmonia met the acclaimed woman physician Harriot Kezia Hunt, who commissioned a life-size statue of Hygieia for her future grave in Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Edmonia also created an altarpiece that the Marquis of Bute purchased for $2,000, and donated a Madonna sculpture to St. Francis Xavier Church in Baltimore.
In the next few years, Edmonia created medallion portraits of Franz Liszt, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Wendell Phillips; busts of Abraham Lincoln and Horace Greeley (among other commissioned busts); a life-sized statue of John Brown (which she donated to the Union League Club of New York City); Young Augustus (Young Octavian); and her cherub pieces Awake, Asleep, Poor Cupid, and Cupid Caught. She won a gold medal for Asleep and a certificate of excellence for Love Caught in a Trap at the International Exposition of Paintings and Sculpture, held at the Academy of Arts and Sciences in Naples.
In the summer of 1873, Edmonia was the first internationally renowned woman sculptor to exhibit in San Francisco and San Jose, where she won significant praise. She showed Lincoln, Asleep and Awake, Cupid Caught, and The Marriage of Hiawatha, and sold most of the pieces. The Friends of San Jose Library purchased the Lincoln bust, where it remains to this day. She also exhibited works in St. Paul, Minnesota, the following year. Upon returning to Rome, she found her artist friends diligently working on pieces for the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Edmonia spent the next year working, too, on what would become her greatest triumph.
Her masterwork, The Death of Cleopatra, is a striking portrayal of Cleopatra after she is bitten by her asp. It garnered Edmonia both acclaim and controversy for such an intimate look at Cleopatra, atypical of her often-portrayed beauty and strength. It was unveiled at the Philadelphia Exposition in 1876, but did not sell like her smaller works (she also exhibited The Old Arrow-Maker and His Daughter and portraits of John Brown, Charles Sumner and Longfellow). She later shipped and exhibited it at the Chicago Interstate Exposition in 1878. It again proved an acclaimed draw, but still did not sell, so she put it into storage. Over the years, this enormous piece (63" x 31-1/4" x 46") was somehow lost -- turning up first in a Chicago saloon, then as a grave marker for a racehorse named Cleopatra, and finally rescued from a salvage yard by a fire inspector in 1988. In 1995, it was restored to its glory and place at the Smithsonian National Museum of American Art.
Edmonia went on to create The Veiled Bride of Spring, which she exhibited in New York and Cincinnati; busts of John Cardinal McCloskey, former President Ulysses S. Grant, Bishop Thomas Patrick Roger Foley, and Phillis Wheatley (an acclaimed Colonial African-American poet); The Adoration of the Magi, an altarpiece combining Asian, Caucasian and African-American cherubs for a church in Baltimore; and a statue of the Holy Virgin for the Marquis of Bute.
In 1887, Frederick Douglass visited her in Rome, and she showed him and his second wife around the city and Naples. He later described her as "cheerful and happy and successful." (Most of the American artists living in Rome had returned to the U.S. by this time, but Edmonia loved Rome and chose to remain there.) In 1893, she exhibited Hiawatha and Phillis Wheatley at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, then exhibited the bust of Charles Sumner at the Atlanta World's Fair in 1895. From here, the records of Edmonia grow dim. In 1896, she gave her address as "c/o U.S. Consul Paris, France." One account says she visited New York in September 1898. Some accounts say she remained in Rome and was reportedly seen there. An article in 1909 in The Rosary Magazine described her as "aging ... [and] still with us." Where and when she died is unknown.
DATE OF DEATH: Unknown
PLACE OF DEATH: Unknown
Blodgett, Geoffrey. "John Mercer Langston and the Case of Edmonia Lewis: Oberlin, 1862" in Journal of Negro History. Vol. 53. July 1968, pp. 201-218.
Buick, Kirsten P. "The Ideal Works of Edmonia Lewis: Invoking and Inverting Autobiography" in American Art, Vol. 9. Summer 1995, pp. 5-19.
Burgard, Timothy Anglin. "Edmonia Lewis and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Images and Identities" in American Art Review. Vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 114-117.
Commire, Anne, editor. Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Waterford, Conn.: Yorkin Publications, 1999-2000.
--------------. "Edmonia Lewis" in The Revolution. Vol. 7. April 20, 1871, p. 8.
--------------. Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. Vol. 3, p. 607.
James, Henry. William Wetmore Story and His Friends; From Letters, Diaries, and Recollections. Edinburgh and London: W. Blackwood and Sons, 1903.
Hartigan, Lynda Roscoe. "Mary Edmonia 'Wildfire' Lewis." in Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Ed. Darlene Clark Hine et al. 2 vols. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.
Hartigan, Lynda Roscoe. Sharing Traditions: Five Black Artists In Nineteenth-Century America: From the Collections of the National Museum of American Art. Washington, D.C.: Published for the Museum by the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985.
Lewis, Jo Ann. "An Afterlife for 'Cleopatra'" in The Washington Post. June 10, 1996, B1.
Richardson, Marilyn. "Edmonia Lewis" in Harvard Magazine. Vol. 88. March-April 1986, pp. 40-41.
Sterling, Dorothy, ed. We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997, c1984.
Wreford, Henry. "A Negro Sculptress" in The Athenæum. Vol. 39. March 3, 1866.
Edmonia Lewis: First Internationally Acclaimed African American Sculptor - website dedicated to her, with bio-chronology, links to photographs of her works, and more
Testmanent to Bravery - PBS transcript of interviewer Charlayne Hunter-Gault, with museum curator George Gurney and art historian David Driskell, on the art and legacy of Edmonia Lewis, August 5, 1996.
"Some praise me because I
am a colored girl, and I don't want that kind of praise. I had rather
you would point out my defects, for that will teach me something."
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