African and Native American Sculptor
Summary of Edmonia Lewis
Edmonia Lewis' sculptures depicted popular subject matter for 19th century American audiences. Carefully crafted marble portrayals of Native American literary characters, African emancipation subjects, and other exotic figures launched her into the international spotlight. Lewis' identity as a female artist of mixed race who lived and worked in Rome also helped propel her to fame in America, which had endured a four-year Civil War over slavery and was struggling through a new wave of racial tensions. Known for her determined approach to self-promotion, Lewis very straightforwardly used gendered and racial status in the marketing and selling of her sculptures.
- It was quite exceptional for a woman to pursue a career in art in the 19th century, especially in the more labor-intensive medium of stone carving. As a woman of color, Edmonia Lewis' attainment of fine art training and achievement as a professional sculptor makes her a singularly important figure.
- Her sculptures were created in a Neoclassical style, but her most important creations possessed Lewis's particular emphasis on subjects with social significance. American art collectors who agreed with the abolition of slavery and enjoyed popular literature about Native American subjects were enthusiastic about owning Lewis' sculptures.
- Lewis' portrayal of female African and Native American figures was unusual in that they were given Caucasian facial features. Doing this enabled Lewis to create a kind of psychological distance between herself as a mixed-race artist and the minority subjects of her art, so that the viewer could not imagine the artist using herself as a model. While she used her own status as a mixed-race artist to help promote her work, she otherwise maintained a kind of visual separation from the female subjects she portrayed.
Biography of Edmonia Lewis
Information about Edmonia Lewis' birth and early origins is vague and contradictory, in large part due to the artist's own ambitions. When asked, she would often create different narratives about her early life in order to enliven her beginnings as an artist. When she applied for a passport in 1865, she stated that she was born "on or about" July 4, 1844 in Greenbush (now Rensselaer), NY.
Important Art by Edmonia Lewis
This bust represents Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the first commander of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, who died in the assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina in July 1863.
It is a traditional 19th century commemorative bust, and the first commercial success for Lewis who chose to represent only the face of the man leaving the bottom portion uncarved. The artist based the portrait on a photograph that she borrowed from Lydia Marie Child, an abolitionist who encouraged much of Lewis' early work in sculpture. Despite Child's concerns that the inexperienced Lewis might not strike an accurate enough likeness to satisfy her Bostonian audience, the artist created a delicate, accurate representation of the Colonel. Child had to concede that the bust was a success. Shaw's family awarded permission to Lewis to execute 100 plaster reproductions. The sales of these reproductions funded Lewis' eventual relocation to Rome, Italy.
This life-size sculpture depicts a young African American couple at the moment of emancipation. The man is represented standing with his left arm raised, defiantly displaying his broken chain. His left foot rests on the ball connected to the chain. He is bare-chested and his curly hair alludes to his African origin. Kneeling at his side, a woman is joining her hands in prayer. She is fully clothed and her features are much more European. She has long, straight hair.
Originally titled "The Morning of Liberty," this sculpture celebrates the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation that stipulates that "all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious states "shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free." Although female figures in Neoclassical portrayals are often nude or semi-nude, Lewis dresses the woman completely here, and challenges the sexual connotation associated with female slaves. Many scholars have criticized the "whiteness" and the submissive position of the woman, but for Lewis, her figure here is a freed woman performing in her gendered role as defined by 19th century Victorian values. As art history professor Kirsten P. Buick explains, Lewis's representation of a freed couple falls into the Victorian Cult of Womanhood in which a woman signifies submission, piety, and virtue, while a man enacts the roles of being both protective and triumphant.
The fact that the female figure has no specifically African features has been considered by scholars as a way for Lewis to distance herself from her subjects to give her work more credibility in a white-dominated art world. Buick asserts that the artist did not want her public to read her works as too closely tied to their maker. If they possess more Caucasian features, they are more readily relatable for the intended consumer: a white, wealthy art collector of the Victorian era, already conditioned to expect this stylization through exposure to other, similar Neoclassical statuary.
This sculpture is based on the 1855 poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Song of Hiawatha. This fictional tale draws from Native American legends and tells the story of Hiawatha, an Indian Ojibwe warrior. He falls in love with Minehaha, a woman from the rival tribe of the Dakotahs, and marries her. While holding Minehaha's hand in his, Hiawatha puts his other hand on her shoulder. She places her other hand on her heart. The ethnicity of the couple is exclusively indicated by their generalized Native American dress. Minehaha's necklace is a direct allusion to Longfellow's description of it as a symbol of their romantic union. While Hiawatha's facial features appear vaguely Native American, Minehaha's appear to be entirely Caucasian and therefore Neoclassical in style.
Lewis emphasizes the reserve, reverence, and dignity of a poetic love described in Longfellow's poem. Longtime Lewis historian Marilyn Richardson interprets the sculpture as a reference to an easily accessible subject in Lewis' Roman life - that of Cupid and Psyche. A very wide array of ancient sculpture portraying mythological subjects was available for tourists and artists to view and study in museums as well as public and private collections in the Eternal City. For Lewis, an elevation of the once savage 'Indians' Hiawatha and Minehaha to more noble levels was a development worth pictorializing. True to Victorian sensibilities of the time, Hiawatha expresses a protective, dominant persona that protects the more diminutive Minehaha.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Edmonia Lewis
- The Indomitable Spirit of Edmonia Lewis. A Narrative BiographyOur PickBy Harry Henderson and Albert Henderson
- Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History's Black and Indian SubjectOur PickBy Kirsten Pai Buick
- Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia LewisBy Jeannine Atkins
- Edmonia Lewis: Internationally Renowned Sculptor (Celebrating Black Artists)By Charlotte Etinde-Crompton and Samuel Willard Crompton
- Edmonia Lewis: Wildfire in MarbleBy Rinna Evelyn Wolfe
- Edmonia Lewis
- 19th Century 5: Edmonia LewisAs part of East Tennessee State University Online Programs, Art Historian Dr. Vida Hull speaks about Edmonia Lewis.
- What'sHerName Podcast Episode 32: THE SCULPTOR Edmonia LewisWhat'sHerName women's history podcast is hosted and produced by academic sisters Olivia Meikle and Katie Nelson.
- Podcast Episode: Finding CleopatraOn this episode of Smithsonian Podcast "Sidedoor", Lizzie Peabody interviews Marilyn Richardson, Kirsten Pai Buick and Karen Lemmey, and talks about Lewis and the work, the Death of Cleopatra.
- Sculptor Edmonia Lewis Shattered Gender and Race Expectations in 19th-Century AmericaBy Alice George / Smithsonian.com / August 22, 2019
- The Object at HandBy Stephen May / Smithsonian Magazine / September 1996
- Overlooked No More: Edmonia Lewis, Sculptor of Worldwide Acclaim"By Penelope Green / New York Times / July 25, 2018