Edmonia Lewis

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Edmonia Lewis : biography

ca. July 4, 1845 – September 17, 1907

Lewis was inspired by the lives of abolitionists and Civil War heroes. She met Union Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the commander of an African American Civil War regiment from Massachusetts. She was inspired to create a bust of his likeness, which impressed the Shaw family, who purchased her homage.Wolfe, 46-9. The poet Anna Quincy Waterston was inspired to write a poem about both Lewis and Shaw.Wolfe, 49.

Early works that proved highly popular included medallion portraits of the abolitionists John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison. Lewis also drew inspiration from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his work, particularly his epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha. She made several busts of its leading characters, for which he drew from Ojibwe legend.

Lewis was determined to study in Rome and sailed there in 1865.Wolfe, 53. On her 1865 passport is written, "M. Edmonia Lewis is a Black girl sent by subscription to Italy having displayed great talents as a sculptor".Passport application 21933 accessed on Ancestry.com on 1 November 2011. The established sculptor Hiram Powers gave her space to work in his studio. She entered a circle of expatriate artists and established her own space within the former studio of 18th-century Italian sculptor Antonio Canova.Wolfe, 55.

While in Rome Edmonia Lewis adopted the neoclassical style of sculpture, as seen in this nude bust. The Walters Art Museum. Rome was where Lewis spent most of her adult career. Her studies there contributed to her neoclassical techniques and subject matter. The surroundings of the classical world greatly inspired her and influenced her work. She recreated the classical art style in her own work. For instance, she presented people in her sculptures as draped in robes rather than in contemporary clothing.Lewis, Samella. "The Diverse Quests for Professional Statues" in African American Art and Artists. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Her work sold for large sums of money. In 1873 an article in the New Orleans Picayune stated, “Edmonia Lewis had snared two 50,000 dollar commissions.” Her new-found popularity made her studio a tourist destination.Tufts, Eleanor. "The Nineteenth Century", Our Hidden Heritage. New York: Paddington P, 1974. Lewis had many major exhibitions during her rise to fame, including one in Chicago, Illinois in 1870, and in Rome in 1871.

A major coup in her career was participating in the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.Wolfe, 93 For this, she created a monumental 3,015-pound marble sculpture, The Death of Cleopatra, which portrayed the queen in the throes of death.Wolfe, 97, 102 Of the piece, J. S. Ingraham wrote that Cleopatra was “the most remarkable piece of sculpture in the American section” of the Exposition.Wolfe, 97-99. Much of the viewing public was shocked by Lewis’s frank portrayal of death, but the statue drew thousands of viewers.Wolfe, 100 After being placed in storage, the statue was lost, not to be found again until a century later in the mid-1980s in Chicago. According to George Gurney, Curator Emeritus at the Smithsonian American Art Museum,Kaplan, Howard, , Eye Level Blog, Smithsonian American Art Museum, September 29, 2011, accessed December 7, 2012 the sculpture was in a race track in Forest Park, Illinois, during World War II, sitting on top of the grave of a horse named Cleopatra. The grounds later turned into military housing and was used for children’s games before becoming a shopping mall, when the sculpture was moved to the work yard of one of the developers of the mall. At some point during this time, the Italian marble was painted over by a troop of well-meaning Boy Scouts. Finally, the sculpture became under the purview of the Forest Park Historical Society, who donated it to Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1994,, Museum catalog record for The Death of Cleopatra on the Smithsonian American Art Museum website, accessed December 7, 2012 where conservators restored it to its near-original state.

A testament to Lewis’s renown as an artist came in 1877, when former US President Ulysses S. Grant commissioned her to do his portrait. He sat for her as a model and was pleased with her finished piece.Wolfe, 108-109.

In the late 1880s, the neoclassical genre became less popular, and Lewis’s popularity also declined. She continued to work in marble, increasingly creating altarpieces and other works for Roman Catholic patrons. In the art world, she became eclipsed by history and lost fame. The events of her later years are not known.

Additional reading

  • Richardson, Marilyn. "Vita: Edmonia Lewis." Harvard Magazine, 1986.
  • Richardson, Marilyn, "Edmonia Lewis." American National Biography, National Council of Learned Societies, 1999.
  • Richardson, Marilyn, "Edmonia Lewis." Encyclopedia of African American Culture and History. Columbia University, 1996.

Category:1845 births Category:1907 deaths Category:Ojibwe people Category:American people of Haitian descent Category:African-American artists Category:Native American sculptors Category:People from Albany, New York Category:Artists from New York Category:American women artists Category:Oberlin College alumni Category:American expatriates in Italy Category:American expatriates in the United Kingdom Category:American women sculptors