This is another person I found on Pinterest. Edmonia Lewis’s caption reads “Mary Edmonia Lewis (ca. July 4, 1845 – ca. 1911) was the first African American and Native American woman to gain fame and recognition as a sculptor in the international fine arts world. She was of African American, Haitian, and Ojibwe descent” (1). If that doesn’t sound interesting, I don’t know what does. When I started reading about her, she’s even more interesting, but with some said parts to her story as well.
It’s not entirely clear where or when Mary Edmonia Lewis was born. She claimed July 4, 1844 for her birthdate. She could have been born any time between 1840 and 1845 though. She was probably born around Greenbush, New York (now in either Rensselaer or East Greenbush). It’s also possible she was born in Albany, New York or Newark, New Jersey. In one interview she said she was born in Greenhigh, Ohio. July 4, 1844 in Greenbush, New York seems to be the agreed upon date and place.
Edmonia was the daughter of an African-American gentleman’s servant and a Mississauga Ojibwe/African-American weaver and craftswoman. Both of her parents died when she was young. Her mother’s two sisters took in Edmonia and her brother Samuel (who was about twelve years older than Edmonia). At this point Edmonia was known as Wildfire, and Samuel went by Sunshine. Edmonia lived with her aunts for about four years in the area near Niagara Falls. She helped sell Ojibwe baskets and other souvenirs to the tourists that came to Niagara Falls.
In 1852, Samuel went to California to look for gold. He must have been fairly successful because he was able to send money back to Edmonia for a number of years. Samuel helped pay for Edmonia’s education at the New York Central College in McGrawville. This school was a Baptist, abolitionist school. Edmonia started at NYCC in 1856 but left after just three years “when she was ‘declared to be wild’” (2).
In 1859 Edmonia started at Oberlin College with help from her brother and some abolitionists. Oberlin was one of the first schools to admit women and minority students. At Oberlin, Edmonia began studying art, excelling at drawing. It was around this time that Wildfire chose to be called Mary Edmonia Lewis; a few years later she would drop Mary and just be Edmonia Lewis.
At Oberlin, Edmonia boarded with the Reverend John Keep and his wife. Keep was an abolitionist and an advocate for coeducation. Keep was also a member of Oberlin’s Board of Trustees. At the Keep residence also lived two white students, Christine Ennes and Maria Miles.
In the winter of 1862, Edmonia, Christine, and Maria were going out for a sleigh ride and had some spiced wine. Edmonia didn’t have as much as the other girls and the other girls got very sick. It was discovered that they had been poisoned with Spanish Fly. They were very sick for a while, but recovered. It was believed that Edmonia had poisoned them, but since they recovered, no charges were filed. People in town were very upset by this though, and Edmonia was dragged off to a field and beaten. Due to public pressure, she was charged with poisoning Christine and Maria.
Oberlin defended Edmonia. Her lawyer, John Mercer Langston, was shot by one of the sick girls’ fathers. In court, Langston argued that “the contents of the girls’ stomachs had never been analyzed, and thus the charges against Lewis could not be proved” (3). Witnesses testified against Edmonia, and she didn’t take the stand. She was either acquitted or the case was dismissed, and so she was free to go. (Langston “would go on to become the first African-American elected to public office in the United States and a founding dean of Howard Law School” (4).)
The following year Edmonia was accused of stealing art supplies from Oberlin, but was acquitted of this charge as well. The women’s principal would not allow Edmonia to register for classes for her last term, though, and so she never graduated.
After leaving Oberlin, Edmonia debated returning to the Niagara Falls area and her mother’s tribe, but instead went to Boston. The Keeps’ wrote to friends in Boston, introducing her to William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison introduced Edmonia to area sculptors and writers. She tried at least three people before she found a teacher willing to take her on in Edward A Brackett. Brackett specialized in marble busts and had abolitionists for clients. He lent Edmonia fragments of his pieces for her to copy and be critiqued. It’s not clear what happened, but Brackett and Edmonia split and it was unamicable.
In 1864, after a solo exhibition, Edmonia opened her own studio. Her pieces at this time were mostly of abolitionists. Her 1863 and 1864 subjects included John Brown and Robert Gould Shaw. Shaw’s family purchased her bust of him, and the success of that allowed her to make plaster copies and sell them for $115 each. She also made medallion portraits of Brown and Garrison.
Between 1864 and 1871, Edmonia was written about by a number of prominent Boston and New York abolitionists. While she wasn’t opposed to the coverage she was getting, Edmonia didn’t want false praise. “She knew that some did not really appreciate her art, but saw her as an opportunity to express and show their support for human rights” (5).
Due to the success of her bust of Shaw, and the medallions of abolitionists, Edmonia was able to save up enough to travel to Rome in 1866. In Rome, the sculptor Hiram Powers gave her some room in his studio. She also was supported by Charlotte Cushman, a Boston actress, and Maria Weston Chapman, an anti-slavery advocate.
In Rome, Edmonia first began sculpting in marble. She also started pieces about Emancipation, the first of which was Freedwoman and her Child. She used the neoclassical forms and mediums to create pieces related to blacks and Native Americans. Edmonia was profiled in London in Atheneum and Art-Journal. In 1868, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow visited her in Rome and she sculpted his bust; his family praised the piece. She had previously created pieces based on Longfellow’s poem, Song of Hiawatha, and it’s possible he saw these pieces when he visited her.
Edmonia was rare in Rome at the time because she did all of her own work. Most sculptors would create the model and then hire Italian workers to carve the marble. Edmonia did all the carving herself, possibly “to forestall expected suggestions that a black woman could not possibly have created works of such skill and accomplishment” (6). Because of this though, “fewer examples and duplicates of Lewis’s work survive than other sculptors of the period” (7).
In 1870 Edmonia had an exhibition in Chicago, and in 1871 in Rome. In 1873, Edmonia received two $50,000 commissions. Her studio became a tourist spot in Rome, being featured in guide books as a destination. A big boost to her profile was having a piece in the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. For this Edmonia created a 3,015 lb., full length sculpture of The Death of Cleopatra. People weren’t sure about the subject matter dealing with death, but thousands still came to view it.
After Philadelphia, Cleopatra was exhibited in Chicago in 1878. It was eventually purchased by a gambler and was used to mark the grave of a racehorse named Cleopatra. After this it was put in storage and damaged by some Boy Scouts who painted the sculpture. Eventually the piece was rediscovered by the Forest Park Historical Society and was donated to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1994. Cleopatra was cleaned and restored to near-original condition.
As neoclassical art decreased in popularity, so did Edmonia. She had become a Catholic in 1868 and continued to do work for Catholic patrons, but her profile was on the decline. She travelled to the US for exhibits of her works. In 1883 she created an altarpiece for a church in Baltimore. Two of her pieces, Hiawatha and Phyllis Wheatley, were exhibited at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
In 1901, Edmonia moved to London, but after that little is known of her life. She never married and never had children. It was speculated that she died in 1911 in Rome, or in Marin County, California (she had travelled to San Francisco at some point). But recent digging has discovered that she died on September 17, 1907 in Hammersmith Borough Infirmary in London from chronic kidney problems.
Edmonia’s pieces had faded from memory, but many have been recently rediscovered. As mentioned, Cleopatra is now at the Smithsonian. Other pieces are at Howard University’s Gallery of Art. In the early 2000s, a play about Edmonia, Wildfire: Black Hands, White Marble, was written by Linda Beatrice Brown.
2, 5 – Edmonia Lewis
3, 6 – Edmonia Lewis