|c. 1870, Henry Rocher, National Portrait Gallery.|
"Sometimes the times were dark and the outlook was lonesome, but where there is a will, there is a way. I pitched in and dug at my work until now I am where I am. It was hard work though, but with color and sex against me, I have achieved success. That is what I tell my people whenever I meet them, that they must not be discouraged, but work ahead until the world is bound to respect them for what they have accomplished." ~ Edmonia Lewis
By her estimation, Mary Edmonia Lewis was born "on or about July 4th," 1844, in Greenbush, NY. Her mother was a Chippewa Indian known for her skill in making moccasins, and her father was a free black man. She would describe her childhood as follows:
"Mother often left her home and wandered with her people, whose habits she could not forget, and thus we her children were brought up in the same wild manner. Until I was twelve years old I lead this wandering life, fishing and swimming... and making moccasins."
Edmonia's parents died when she was nine, and she moved in with her mother's Chippewa family close to Nigeria Falls. The family sold Native American souvenirs to the tourists in that area, and as it was also close to the border where the United States meets Canada, it was also a prime spot for escaped slaves to cross over into freedom.
Living in that community, Edmonia grew up witnessing slaves escape and seeing slave owners chasing them down, and knew to be careful of being mistaken for an escaped slave, lest she be shot. These experiences and perspectives would shape her later artwork.
Edmonia's brother Sunrise went West following the gold rush after their parents died, and he sent money back to Edmonia so she could go to school. She attended New York Central College in McGraw from 1856-1858, until it failed financially, and in 1859 at the age of 14 she enrolled at Oberlin College under the name Mary E. Lewis (by 1961, she would be enrolled as M. Edmonia Lewis, the name she would go by for the rest of her life).
Oberlin College was an abolitionist school, so called because it was run by white people who opposed slavery. The schools were initially created for black people to attend, but white people also enrolled. Oberlin College was deeply religious and one of the few in the country that admitted both black and female students. It was here that Edmonia discovered her love of drawing and passion for art, but it was also a place she would come to associate with racism and violence.
In January 1862 two of Edmonia's friends, who were white, became very sick after going on a sleigh ride with two young men. They pointed the finger of blame at Edmonia, whom they claimed gave them mulled wine before the ride. They accused Edmonia of trying to poison them, and she was arrested.
While she was awaiting trial several members of the community took matters into their own hands. They went to Edmonia's home and dragged her out, and into a snowy field behind her building. After beating her unconsciousness, they left her for dead in the winter night.
Students and faculty noticed she was missing and conducted a search. They found her and helped her to a doctor, but Edmonia was injured so badly the trial had to be postponed. During the trial, Edmonia was left very weak and needed help moving through the room. The case was dismissed due to lack of evidence and motive.
The damage was done all around, however, and not just to Edmonia physically. At school she had to endure the taunting of classmates and the accusation of several other small crimes, all of which were also dismissed without evidence. White people at the school and town no longer treated her well, and I doubt she cared much for them by that time either.
Before the end of her final year, Edmonia was receiving so much harassment that she left without graduating. She considered returning to her family in Niagra Falls but decided to go to Boston to become a sculptor instead: "I thought of returning to wild life again; but my love of sculpture forbade it."
In Boston, Edmonia met and befriended sculptor Edward A. Brackett, who taught her to sculpt and encouraged her to set up her own studio. She also became friends with abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and her small medallions featuring Garrison and other abolitionists provided a small amount of commercial success, and an income.
One of Edmonia's breakthroughs came when she saw Colonel Robert Shaw, leader of the all-black 54th Regiment of the Civil War, at a local parade. Shaw would die six weeks later, and Edmonia was so moved by his story and sacrifice that she decided to carve a bust of Shaw in honor of his bravery, and that of his men.
She was relatively inexperienced in sculpting from marble but she had confidence in her abilities. When she asked a white friend who knew the family to get photographs for her to work from, the friend refused, however - she didn't think Edmonia was talented enough. Edmonia secured the photos another way instead, and went ahead with carving the bust.
When she showed the bust to Shaw's family, they approved of it, and gave her permission to replicate it. She sold nearly one hundred copies at a fundraiser to equalize pay for black soldiers.
Giving the majority of her earnings to the cause, she took a small portion herself so she could travel to Italy, the center of the sculpting world. There she studied with Hiram Powers, an American carver who showed her how to make life-sized sculptures.
|Marble sculpture Minnihaha, 1868|
African American artists were also very uncommon during that century. It's not that they didn't exist, for they certainly did, but few had the freedom and means to express themselves and devote themselves to their craft. As biographer Kirsten Pai Buick would describe later, "She found a path virtually uncharted by African Americans, that of an artist."
Edmonia created a series of sculptures that were reflective of her black and Native American ancestry. Forever Free (1867) showed an African American man and women in broken chains, emerging from the bonds of slavery. The Arrow Maker (1866) shows a father teaching his young daughter how to make an arrow, with both characters dressed in the Chippewa garb of the tribe Edmonia grew up with.
In 1868 he also created a series of sculptures based on the poem of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called "the Song of Hiawatha," a work that shifted the way white people viewed Native Americans. These works included The Marriage of Hiawatha, Hiawatha, and Minnihaha, and were some of her most popular and commercially successful works.
|The Death of Cleopatra sculpture, 1876|
Edmonia received substantial fame an recognition for her works while she was alive, and she would tour the United States for exhibitions of her work and to receive awards. She was never quite free from discrimination while within the United States, however, and it could be hard to find accommodation, even in cities in the North. In 1878 she decided to leave America once and for all, declaring "the land of liberty has no room for a colored sculptor."
Before she left, she created The Death of Cleopatra, a depiction of the Egyptian Queen after her death. It was a controversial choice at the time because no-one had ever shown Cleopatra after death, only ever presenting her as she was when alive, usually looking poised and lovely. The sculpture of the disheveled queen stirred up something new for those who viewed it, and it was met with critical acclaim. Even art critics from Oberlin, maddeningly enough, were now quick to call out Edmonia as one of their own, writing how "Miss Lewis took her first classes in art at Oberlin about 16 years ago."
Edmonia spent the rest of her life in Italy, though The Death of Cleopatra was too heavy to be shipped. It was sold to a Chicago saloon instead, in the first of what would be numerous transactions over decades as the work of art switched hands.
Not much is known of Edmonia's later years until 1907, when she checked into an infirmary in Hammersmith under the name "Mary Lewis, age 42." She died on September 17th in London, England. Her death would go unnoticed by the press for over 100 years, fueling doubts about how long she lived and the nature of her demise.
Tracked slightly better was the journey of Edomina's most famous works of art, The Death of Cleopatra: In 1915 its owner John Condon died, leaving the work to forever mark the grave of his racehorse, at least according to the deed of his racetrack.
In 1988 however, The Death of Cleopatra was rescued from a Chicago scrap yard. It was acquired 7 years later and restored by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where it remains with other works, including Fovever Free. Other works of Edmonia's are part of a permanent collection at the Howard University of Art.
Inspired by Edmonia
In life and as a part of her legacy, Edmonia connected with and inspired numerous poets. One of these was Tyehimba Jess, who released a remarkable series of poems in issue 38/3 of Callaloo, a journal of literature, art, and culture of the African Diaspora.
I've included the poem "Minnehaha" here, on the grounds that it is breathtaking:
What part of me is mine that wasQuotes from Edmonia Lewis:
not mined from the mind of poets,
artists rewriting the past blow
by blow ‘til it’s pulverized past
the barely recognizable?
I was born when I was written,
then hammered out of a mountain.
I was shattered and then broken,
then sharpened to the human. I’m
carved in marble that never dies,
hardly crumbles; a stubborn queen
who’ll die only with those people
who crave a ruling monarchy
of fictions—tales my sculptor plied
to strike against their pale armies
of indignities. History
is their favorite lie. I found
my face buried in its would-be
pages, then excavated by
a native who fled the country.
Such was her misery at home
in the land where my legend roams
the canonized American
poetry. I’m her stone arrow,
her refusal to bow. I wear
her chisel-sharp aim as my crown.
"There is nothing so beautiful as the free forest. To catch a fish when you are hungry, cut the boughs off a tree, make fire to roast it, and eat it in the open air, is the greatest of all luxuries. I would not stay a week pent up in cities, if it were not for my passion for Art."
"I was ... declared to be wild -- they could do nothing with me. Often they said to me, 'Here is your book, the book of Nature; come and study it.'
"I thought I knew everything when I came to Rome, but I soon found that I had everything to learn."
Regarding how she became an artist: "well, it was a strange selection for a poor girl to make, wasn’t it? I suppose it was in me ... I became almost crazy to make something like the thing which fascinated me."
"I was practically driven to Rome in order to obtain the opportunities for art culture, and to find a social atmosphere where I was not constantly reminded of my color. The land of liberty had not room for a colored sculptor."
"I am going back to Italy to do something for the race – something that will excite the admiration of the other races of the earth."
"I shall never live in America."
“The Good Spirit always sends me friends.”
- Edmonia Lewis, Harry Henderson and Albert Henderson, Edmonia Lewis website, edmonialewis.com. 2012.
- Edmonia Lewis, Provenance and: Minnehaha, Marble, 1868, Edmonia Lewis and: Indian Combat, and: Indian Combat, Marble, 1868, Edmonia Lewis and: Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, Marble, 1864, Edmonia Lewis and: My Name is Sissieretta Jones, and: Sissieretta Jones, Carnegie Hall, 1902, Project MUSE, 2016.
- Girls Who Rocked the World, Michelle Roehm McCann and Amelie Welden, 2012.