Mary Edmonia Lewis was born in Greenbush, New York in 1844 to an African American father and Native American (Chippewa) mother. Orphaned at a young age, Lewis was raised by her mother's nomadic family and given the name “Wildfire.” Her brother financed her early education in Albany and supported her enrollment at Oberlin College in Ohio, in 1859. Lewis’s education at Oberlin ended abruptly in 1863, after she was brutally assaulted by white vigilantes following her acquittal in a trial in which she was accused of poisoning two of her white roommates. Lewis moved to Boston with encouragement and financial assistance from her brother and received limited formal training from the sculptor Edward Brackett.
In Boston, Lewis began sculpting portraits of well-known abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Sumner, and Wendell Phillips. The sale of her portrait busts of abolitionist John Brown and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the Boston hero and leader of the celebrated all-African American 54th Regiment of the Civil War, helped finance Lewis' first trip to Europe in 1865. Image: Portrait of American abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859), executed in 1859.
Lewis traveled to London, Paris, and Florence before settling in Rome, where she learned Italian and rented a studio near the Piazza Barberini. Lewis became acquainted with Harriet Hosmer and other American sculptors, many of whom had been drawn to Rome by the availability of fine white marble and skills of Italian stone carvers, who were often hired to transfer a sculptor's design from a plaster model to finished marble. Lewis was unique among sculptors of her generation in Rome as she rarely employed Italian carvers and completed most of her work without assistance, in part due to her limited financial resources.
A selection of Edmonia Lewis' most iconic sculptures
Anna Quincy Waterston (ca. 1866) by Edmonia LewisSmithsonian American Art Museum
Anna Quincy Waterston
Edmonia Lewis often carved portraits of her patrons, either for a commission or as an expression of thanks. This bust depicts Lewis’s patron and advocate Anna Quincy Waterston who, with her husband Reverend Robert C. Waterston, helped raise funds for Lewis to complete the first marble sculptures she carved in Rome.
Anna Waterson’s poem of 1864, titled “Edmonia Lewis,” describes the sculptor’s skill:
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.
Old Arrow Maker (modeled 1866, carved 1872) by Edmonia LewisSmithsonian American Art Museum
Old Arrow Maker
Modeled 1866, Carved 1872
Edmonia Lewis's Old Arrow Maker depicts a scene from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem the Song of Hiawatha (1855) in which the character Minnehaha, a young Dakota woman, plaits "mats of flags and rushes" while her father makes "arrow-heads of jasper." Both figures look up to greet Hiawatha, an Ojibwe, whose presence is implied by the deer he has placed at their feet as a token of marriage. The cessation of hostilities between the Ojibwe and Dakota after years of inter-tribal war represented in both the poem and sculpture may refer to Lewis's hopes for reconciliation between the North and South after the Civil War. In the story, Hiawatha later marries Minnehaha with the wish that ". . . old feuds might be forgotten/ And old wounds be healed forever."
Longfellow Henry Wadsworth 1807 - 1882 American PoetLIFE Photo Collection
Lewis completed at least three other figural groups inspired by Longfellow’s poem: The Wooing of Hiawatha, The Marriage of Hiawatha and Minnehaha, and The Departure of Hiawatha and Minnehaha. While in Rome in 1869, Longfellow visited Lewis's studio where he sat for a portrait bust and probably saw the sculptures his poem inspired.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha inspired Edmonia Lewis to carve the Old Arrow Maker.
At the doorway of his wigwam
Sat the ancient Arrow-maker
At his side, in all her beauty,
Sat the lovely Minnehaha"
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Song of Hiawatha
Poor Cupid (modeled ca. 1872, carved 1876) by Edmonia LewisSmithsonian American Art Museum
Modeled ca. 1872, Carved 1876
Edmonia Lewis occasionally carved sculptures of mythical scenes that appealed to Victorian sentimentality. Poor Cupid, or Love Ensnared, depicts the cherub with his hand caught in a trap as he reaches down for a rose.
Young Octavian (left), Moses (right) (Young Octavian, 1873 Moses, 1875) by Edmonia LewisSmithsonian American Art Museum
As did many nineteenth-century sculptors, Edmonia Lewis developed her skills in Rome by copying classical and Renaissance sculptures, which she sold to American tourists visiting the Eternal City.
Lewis’s Young Octavian depicts Augustus, the adopted heir of Julius Caesar, and is likely based on a sculpture in the Vatican galleries that dates from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century.
Lewis copied Moses after a sculpture Michelangelo completed around 1515 for the tomb of Pope Julius II in St. Peter’s Basilica. The subject of Moses, who led the Israelites out of oppression, may have especially appealed to Lewis as a powerful reference to the universal pursuit of freedom, a theme she depicted in several sculptures.
[Moses by Michelangelo] (1850s) by Robert MacphersonThe J. Paul Getty Museum
“I thought I knew everything when I came to Rome, but I soon found I had everything to learn.” Edmonia Lewis, quoted in Romare Bearden, A History of African-American Artists, 1993
Hagar (1875) by Edmonia LewisSmithsonian American Art Museum
Edmonia Lewis’s sensitively carved Hagar (also known as Hagar in the Wilderness) depicts a heroine from the Old Testament, an Egyptian maidservant to Sarah, Abraham’s wife. Sarah banishes her young servant to the wilderness in a jealous rage over Hagar’s son Ishmael, whom Abraham fathered. Lewis depicts Hagar with an empty jug at her feet, looking toward heaven and wringing her hands as she wanders the desert desperate for water. Lewis may have chosen Hagar as a symbol of courage and survival.
The Death of Cleopatra (carved 1876) by Edmonia LewisSmithsonian American Art Museum
The Death of Cleopatra
Edmonia Lewis depicts Cleopatra, the legendary queen of Egypt (69-30 BCE) who chose to commit suicide rather than submit to Roman forces. Cleopatra was a popular subject among nineteenth-century sculptors, who favored historical, biblical and literary themes and typically showed the Egyptian queen contemplating suicide. In contrast to her contemporaries, Lewis dramatically portrays Cleopatra dying on her throne, moments after being bitten by a poisonous snake. Some critics regarded this level of realism as “ghastly” and “absolutely repellant” (William J. Clark, Great American Sculpture, 1878), while others highly praised the sculpture when it was shown at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, deeming it the most impressive American sculpture in the exhibition.
Not long after its debut, Death of Cleopatra was presumed lost for nearly a century. In 1892 it was reported on display in a saloon; sometime later the owner of the Harlem Racetrack (in what is now the suburb of Forest Park, west of Chicago) placed the sculpture there to mark the grave of the owner's favorite racehorse, "Cleopatra." After the racetrack closed, the sculpture remained on the site, which over the years became a golf course and later a munitions factory during World War II. When the Postal Service built a bulk mail center on the land in 1972, the sculpture was moved to a salvage yard. A fire inspector discovered the statue in the early 1980s and enlisted his son's Boy Scouts troop to clean and paint it. In 1985 the statue was given to the Historical Society of Forest Park, which in turn donated it to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1994.
Unless otherwise noted, all sculptures are in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Text was adapted from Regenia A. Perry Free within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art in Association with Pomegranate Art Books, 1992); updated 2017.
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