Edmonia Lewis : biography
Hagar, 1868 Inspired by a character from the Old Testament, this was made of white marble. It shows Hagar with her hands in prayer and staring slightly up but not straight across. The Egyptian wife of Abraham, Hagar gave birth to his first son Ishmael. Abraham’s second wife, Sarah, resented Hagar and “cast Hagar into the wilderness after the birth Sarah’s son Isaac.” Lewis uses Hagar to symbolize the African mother in the United States. She represented the abuse of African women. Lewis had a tendency to sculpt historically strong women. We see this not just in Hagar but also in Lewis’s Cleopatra piece. Lewis also depicted regular women in great situations, emphasizing their strength.
Old Arrow-Maker and his Daughter, 1866 This sculpture was inspired by Lewis’s Native American heritage. An arrow-maker and his daughter sit on a round base. They are dressed in traditional Native American clothes and have recognizable Native American facial features. Lewis pushed the limits with the accuracy of her sculptures. She never generalized the appearance of those she sculpted. Instead, she found truth in the particular and used that in her work. She wanted to be as realistic as possible.
Early life and education
Edmonia Lewis was born on July 4, 1844, in Greenbush, New York, which is now the city of Rensselaer.Passport application 21933, accessed on Ancestry.com on 1 November 2011. Her father was Haitian of African descent, while her mother was of Mississauga Ojibwe and African descent.Wolfe, 12. Lewis’s mother was known as an excellent weaver and craftswoman.Wolfe, 15. Her family background inspired Lewis in her later work.
When Lewis was about nine years old, both of her parents died within a year of each other.Wolfe, 18. Lewis and her older brother, Samuel, were taken in and lived with their mother’s sisters for the next three years. Lewis and her aunts sold Ojibwe baskets and other crafts to tourists visiting Niagara Falls, Toronto, and Buffalo.Wolfe, 19. Becoming a successful businessman and gold prospector, her brother Samuel paid for her tuition to the New York Central College. Lewis was rebellious and did not learn English well, so Samuel suggested she transfer to Oberlin College, outside Cleveland, Ohio.Wolfe, 20.
At the time, Oberlin College was one of the first higher learning institutions in the United States to admit women and people of differing ethnicities. Lewis’s decision to attend Oberlin was one that would significantly change her life, as that is where she began her art studies.Plowden, Martha W. "Edmonia Lewis-Sculptor," Famous Firsts of Black Women. Gretna: Pelican Company, 1994.
Incident at Oberlin College
During the winter season of 1862, several months after the start of the Civil War, while Edmonia Lewis attended Oberlin College, an incident involved her and two classmates, Maria Miles and Christina Ennes. The three women, who boarded in the home of Oberlin trustee John Keep, planned to go sleigh riding with some young men later that day. Before the sleighing, Lewis served her friends a drink of spiced wine. Shortly after, Miles and Ennes fell severely ill. Doctors examined them and concluded that the two women had some sort of poison in their system, apparently cantharides, a reputed aphrodisiac. For a time it was not certain that they would survive. Days later, it became apparent that the two women would recover from the incident, and, because of their recovery, the authorities initially took no action.
Townspeople attacked Lewis. While she was walking home alone one night, she was dragged into an open field by unknown assailants and badly beaten.Katz, William L. and Paula A. Franklin. "Edmonia Lewis: Sculptor," Proudly Red and Black. New York: Maxwell Macmillan, 1993. Those responsible for her injuries were never found.Woods, Naurice F. "Mary Edmonia Lewis," Insuperable Obstacles, Cincinnati: Union Institute Graduate School, 1993 Due to the attack, local authorities arrested Lewis, charging her with poisoning her friends. The college defended their student throughout the trial. John Mercer Langston, an Oberlin College alumnus, and the only practicing African-American lawyer in Oberlin, represented Lewis during her trial. Although most witnesses spoke against her and she did not testify, the jury acquitted her of the charges.Wolfe, 41. She began to study under a well-known sculptor, Edward Augustus Brackett. Under his tutelage, she crafted her own sculpting tools and sold her first piece, a sculpture of a woman’s hand, for $8.Wolfe, 43. She opened her studio to the public in her first solo exhibition in 1864.Wolfe, 44.