Top Image: “The Death of Cleopatra”, 1876
Edmonia Lewis was the first sculptor of African American and Native American descent to achieve international recognition. Edmonia’s Neoclassical works exploring religious and classical themes won contemporary praise and received renewed interest in the late 20th century. Her father was Black, and her mother was Chippewa (Ojibwa) Indian. She was named wildfire at birth. This added her to a very different image. Lewis grew up in her mother’s tribe where her life revolved around fishing, swimming, and making and selling crafts. After the passing of her parents, she traveled to Boston. When she was young, Lewis was raised by her maternal aunts in upstate New York. She had a half-brother who traveled west during the Gold Rush and earned enough money to finance her education, a rare opportunity for a woman or a minority in the 19th century. In 1859, she attended Oberlin College in Ohio, one of the first schools to accept female and Black students. She developed an interest in the fine arts, but an accusation of poisoning, probably racially motivated, forced Lewis to leave the school. Kidnapped, beaten, and left to die, Edmonia Lewis, a talented artist with both African and Native-American ancestry, refused to abandon her dreams. In the winter of 1862, a white mob had attacked her because of reports that she had poisoned two fellow Oberlin College students, drugging their wine with “Spanish Fly.” Battered and struggling to recover from serious injuries. Lewis was unable to finish her last term at Oberlin following accusations that she had also stolen paint, brushes, and a picture frame. Despite the dismissal of the theft charges, the college asked her to leave with no chance to complete her education and receive her degree although she received an acquittal after going to court.
In Boston, however, she met people who supported her work. She established herself as a professional artist, studying with a local sculptor and creating portraits of famous antislavery heroes. Moving to Rome in 1865, she became involved with a group of American women sculptors and began to work with marble. Sculptors usually hired local workmen to carve their final pieces, but Lewis did all her own stonework out of fear that if she didn’t, her work would not be accepted as original. In addition to creating portrait heads, Lewis sculpted biblical scenes and figural works dealing with her Native American heritage and the oppression of Black people. Art, however, was very much a man’s world. She proceeded to crush this narrative by being a minority that was a success in the industry.
As a Black artist, Edmonia Lewis had to be so aware of her stylistic choices, as her mostly white audience often gravely misinterpreted her work as self-portraiture. To avoid this, her female figures typically possess European features. Lewis had to balance her own personal identity with her artistic, social, and national identity, a tiring activity that affected her art.
Among the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum are several of Lewis’ works. Her most significant work, The Death of Cleopatra, greets visitors who climb to the museum’s third floor in the Luce Foundation Center. She dedicated four or more years of her life to the sculpture. Many of Lewis’s works seemingly disappeared from the art world, but her image of Cleopatra found its way back after a decades-long sojourn that carried its own strange story of fame and lost fortune.
At some point (it is not clear whether this was in the US or Rome) Lewis became a Catholic, and she began producing devotional pieces. Two of these caught the attention of the 3rd Marquess of Bute, who had scandalized Victorian Britain when he converted to Catholicism at the age of 21.
Originally “The Morning of Liberty,” this sculpture celebrates the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation that stipulates that “all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Although female figures in Neoclassical portrayals are often nude or semi-nude, Lewis dresses the woman completely here and challenges the sexual connotation associated with female slaves. Many scholars have criticized the “whiteness” and the submissive position of the woman, but for Lewis, her figure here is a freed woman performing in her gendered role as defined by 19th-century Victorian values. The fact that the woman did not have black features shows she wanted to gain credibility with the white audience.
As a now devout Catholic, Lewis uses Hagar as a metaphor for all African American female slaves and their sustenance through faith. Abused by her masters, Hagar is then expelled from the household with her child and no other resources. Her uncovered breast refers to the sexual assault and emphasizes her vulnerability, as rape was a common crime committed upon female slaves. In addition to these abuses, historian Kristen Buick interprets Hagar as a representation of the despair and dismantling of the African-American family under slavery. By illustrating Hagar’s fortitude and faith in God’s direction as she wanders in the wilderness, Lewis restores dignity to Hagar as a woman and as a mother.
Later on, a testament to Lewis’s renown as an artist came in 1877, when former U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant commissioned her to do his portrait. He sat for her as a model and was pleased with her finished piece. She also contributed a bust of Massachusetts abolitionist senator Charles Sumner to the 1895 Atlanta Exposition.
In the late 1880s, neoclassicism declined in popularity, as did the popularity of Lewis’s artwork. She continued sculpting in marble, increasingly creating altarpieces and other works for Catholic patrons. A bust of Christ, created in her Rome studio in 1870, was rediscovered in Scotland in 2015. In the art world, she became eclipsed by history and lost fame. By 1901 she had moved to London.
According to her death certificate, the cause of her death was chronic kidney failure (Bright’s disease). She is buried in St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery, London.
“Some praise me because I am a colored girl, and I don’t want that kind of praise,” she said. “I had rather you would point out my defects, for that will teach me something.”