Talented artists whose lives and works may not be as familiar and lauded as those in the canon because, well, you know…
Edmonia Lewis (c.1844-1907)
An artist’s studio in 19th century Rome. High-profile visitors admiring the artist at work. Pieces of high quality Italian marble chiselled down to reveal figures from history, literature, biblical stories and myths; sculptures that sell for thousands of dollars. This picture is not difficult to imagine, but focus now on the artist themself; a 25-year-old woman of colour. Her name was Edmonia Lewis.
Edmonia Lewis’ biography has been muddied by her own propensity to tell a range of wild, conflicting stories about her own background and by allegations made against her that may have been accurate or driven by racial discrimination. She is thought to have been born in 1844 in New York state. Her father was Afro-Haitian and her mother was Chippewa, from the Mississauga Ojibwe First Nation in Ontario, Canada. She was orphaned at a young age and tells of living life in the wild, but also of producing Ojibwe crafts with her aunts and selling them to tourists at Niagara. What is known, is that her elder half-brother helped provide for her and she was educated at abolitionist schools and Oberlin College in Ohio. At Oberlin she was accused of poisoning two of her classmates and was lucky to survive a vigilante beating she was given.
In 1864, she moved to Boston and was introduced to established sculptors there. She was taken on by Edward Augustus Bracket, a specialist in marble busts, and she developed her skills under his tutelage. Her subjects included Civil War and abolitionist heroes, such as the renowned commander of the African American Civil War regiment, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. By selling reproductions of her works, including that of Shaw, she was able to raise money to travel to Europe. She visited London and Paris but finally settled in Rome. In 1878 she explained,
“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.”
She spent most of the rest of her life in Europe, dying in London in 1907.
In her lifetime, Lewis’ work was recognised, both in Europe and the US. She represented African and Indigenous figures in the neoclassical style, and her sculptures were exhibited in Chicago in 1870, Rome in 1871 and the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. Visitors to her studio included Frederick Douglass and former President Ulysses S. Grant, who commissioned a portrait from her in 1877.
June 2019, Jacqueline MacDonald
New York Times – “Overlooked No More: Edmonia Lewis, Sculptor of Worldwide Acclaim” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/25/obituaries/overlooked-edmonia-lewis-sculptor.html
Smithsonian American Art Museum – “Edmonia Lewis” https://americanart.si.edu/artist/edmonia-lewis-2914