Edmonia Lewis, 19th-Century West Indian/Chippewa Sculptor of Worldwide Acclaim

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As an artist she transcended constraints, and as a woman of color, she confronted a society that wished to categorize her.

Since 1851, obituaries in The New York Times have been dominated by white men. With Overlooked, we’re adding the stories of remarkable people whose deaths went unreported in The Times.

An obituary by Penelope Green for the New York Times.

It was the middle of the 19th century, and Edmonia Lewis, part West Indian, part Chippewa, had the audacity to be an artist. It was risky enough for a free woman of color to pursue such a career, but to claim marble as her medium was to tilt at the Victorian conventions of the time, which decreed gentler aesthetic forms for the second sex, like poetry or painting.

Among the first black sculptors known to achieve widespread international fame, Lewis was raised Catholic, educated at Oberlin College in Ohio and mentored by abolitionists in Boston. She lived much of her life in Rome, sailing to Europe in 1865 and joining a community of American sculptors there who included female artists derided by the author Henry James as “a white marmorean flock.”

James singled Lewis out for special scorn. “One of the sisterhood was a Negress,” he wrote, “whose colour, picturesquely contrasting with that of her plastic material, was the pleading agent of her fame.”

And Lewis was famous, a bona fide celebrity. She was gifted and ambitious — her themes were biblical, literary, political and mythological. But it was her race that made her an exotic curiosity.

Her Roman studio was a required stop for the moneyed class on the Grand Tour. Frederick Douglass visited her. Ulysses S. Grant sat for her. She made busts of John Brown, Abraham Lincoln and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (whose 1855 poem, “The Song of Hiawatha,” inspired her to create a series of marble sculptures on Hiawatha and Minnehaha).

 

Her sculptures sold for thousands of dollars, and she had commissions from wealthy patrons on both sides of the Atlantic. When the United States celebrated its centennial in Philadelphia in 1876, she was invited to submit her work. Her piece, “The Death of Cleopatra” — more than 3,000 pounds of Carrara marble depicting the Egyptian queen with one breast bared and quite dead — created a stir for its commanding realism.

Lewis was always irresistible to the press. They wrote about her sculptor’s garb (a jaunty red fez); they noted her stature (short), her speech (deliberate), her manners (childlike) and her demeanor (stoic), sentimentalizing her race and gender in the custom of the time.

 

“A black sculptress is rarer than a black swan,” proclaimed The San Francisco Chronicle in 1866.

“A struggling genius,” wrote The Atlanta Constitution in 1871.

 

But she was frustrated with the intense focus on her race.

In 1878, she told The New York Times: “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 no room for a colored sculptor.”

Details of Lewis’s early life are fuzzy, but biographers say she was born Mary Edmonia Lewis in Greenbush, N.Y., near Albany, in about 1844.

Her father, who worked as a gentleman’s servant, was West Indian. Her mother, who made moccasins and other trinkets that were sold to tourists, was part Chippewa. Lewis was orphaned when she was young, but her half brother, a wealthy entrepreneur, helped pay for her education.

“She was richly and variously educated by an order of black nuns in Baltimore, at a radical coeducational college in upstate New York and finally at Oberlin,” said Marilyn Richardson, an independent curator and Lewis’s longtime biographer.”

Despite Oberlin’s reputation as a haven for women and minorities, Lewis was targeted for her race. In one especially egregious incident, she was accused of poisoning two white girls with the aphrodisiac Spanish fly. She was later abducted by unidentified assailants, badly beaten and left for dead in a field.

She stayed on at school, though the following year she was accused of stealing art supplies and was not allowed to register for her final semester.

Armed with introductions to prominent abolitionists, she moved to Boston and began to recast her story, erasing the harrowing Oberlin chapter.

“She rejected wholesale the idea of herself as a victim, glossing over unpleasantness so that her experiences were more consistent with those of other internationally renowned artists,” said Kirsten Pai Buick, an art history professor and Lewis biographer.

Lewis’s piece, “The Death of Cleopatra,” which depicted the Egyptian queen with one breast bared and quite dead, created a stir for its realism.

Driven and canny, Lewis was a deft self-promoter, tweaking her story for her audience — sometimes performing the naïf, sometimes the sophisticated lady of the world. Her variations on her own life story would bedevil those who studied her decades after her death.

“Lewis emphasized this idea of herself as a mysterious figure who was in some ways untutored,” said Richardson, who has been researching her life since the 1980s. (It was Richardson who discovered Lewis’s Cleopatra covered in white and purple house paint and left in a mall outside of Chicago. The sculpture is now in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian.)

“She talked about living with her mother’s people and selling trinkets and her mother making moccasins. ‘I lived in the wild, and I caught fish,’ sort of thing. But that wasn’t her foundational experience. Of that group of female artists living in Rome, she was the only one who went to college.”

In one oft-told account of how she became a sculptor, said Richardson, “she describes being overwhelmed by the sight of a statue of Ben Franklin in Boston and not knowing what the word for sculpture is. She cries out, ‘Oh, how I would love to make a man in stone!’ But it’s pure hooey.”

“It’s part of the mythology she allowed to be printed, depicting her as an uneducated waif,” Richardson added.

The details of Lewis’s death were unknown until recently, when Richardson found her death notice, indicating that she died in London on Sept. 17, 1907. The cause was Bright’s disease, an inflammation of the kidneys. Her age was listed as 42, though she would have been about 63.

 

As Richardson said: “Nothing about Edmonia Lewis is straightforward.”

In the century since her death, Lewis as an idea — the artist as a proxy for her race and gender, whose work can only be seen through those two prisms — would trip up her champions and muddy her biography. That includes modern day critics, those who would cast her — still — as a picturesque exotic, or else as a subversive feminist who embedded her work with gendered themes, or as a racial activist.

But Lewis confounded such neat categories. In 1873, when the Western states were at war with Native Americans, she dismissed her usual origin story of growing up wild with Indians, saying to the San Francisco Chronicle: “I have Indian blood in me, you know. Why, do you know I almost envied the freedom of the Indians which I saw on the plains? But then they were so dirty. I didn’t like that in them.”

“What do you do with such a blatant piece of racism?” said Buick, the art history professor. “You ignore it. That’s why Lewis’s story gets so garbled.”

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