“Prominent Sculptor, Edmonia Lewis”
Mixed Media on Paper
11 inches x 14 inches
Edmonia Lewis was born in the 19th century to an African American father (a free man) and a Mississauga Ojibwe native mixed mother in New York, though, she lost them both as a toddler and lived her mother’s tribe until she was twelve. While living with her mother’s tribe, she gained the name “Wildfire”, but after attending a few precollege programs before attending Oberlin College for schooling (thanks to her brother, Sunrise, financing her), she changed it to “Mary Edmonia Lewis. Her schooling ended too soon due to her being accused of several misconducts including harming her white classmates and stealing art supplies.
Her brother continued to finance and encourage her to pursue quality education through the arts, thus they ventured to Boston. There, she met Edward Brackett and underwent visual arts education (mostly sculpturing), and produced award winning busts of abolitionists such as Colonel Robert Gould Shaw—known well for leading the 54th Regiment during the Civil War consisting of an all African-American enlistment. Her studies had her tour through London, Paris, and Florence, and Rome where she rented a studio near the Piazza Barberini. Charlotte Cushman, a stage actress, and Harriet Hosmer, a neoclassical sculptor, became Lewis’ roommates during her stay in Italy and became fluent in the local language. Lewis began a series of original works depicting native and African ancestry during her stay, inspired by the works of Michelangelo, but continued to work on abolitionists as well.
She was moved by the writings of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and made several sculptures based upon noted stories such as her favorite: “The Song of Hiawatha”. Her portfolio contained works of mythological inspiration such as “Asleep”, “Awake”, “Poor Cupid”, “Adoration of the Magi”, and biblical figures such as her figure of “Moses”. Praised by American newspapers (i.e. Pacific Appeal) of her neoclassical sculptures, her works were exhibited at the San Francisco Art Association. Art Commissions built up to over $50,000 very quickly as wealthy clients, such as Ulysses S. Grant, commissioned her to do their portraits. The Forest Park Historical society and those of the Smithsonian American Art Museum sought Lewis our after the reveal of her work “The Death of Cleopatra”.
Though the details of her later life is ambiguous, it is noted that Edmonia Lewis is one of the few—in fact, the first—African American Artist to gain continuous fame and attention for her artist portfolio. Some of her works did not survive, but her sculptures can still be viewed in the Smithsonian American Art Museum today.