Wednesday, July 15, 2009

American Sculptor Edmonia Wildfire Lewis

Unk., Edmonia Lewis. 

Many readers love posts about women artists as much as I love finding the history and images to share.  The story of Edmonia Lewis is one of the most compelling and inspiring I have found yet.   click on the photos for links to their sources. 

Edmonia Lewis was born in the mid-1840s and died sometime after 1909.  It appears her father was a free African from the West Indies and her mother was a Ojibway mother.  Edmonia told interviewers that her given Ojibway name was “Wildfire.” 

Along with a brother, Edmonia was orphaned at a young age.  Her older brother Samuel became a successful businessman in Bozeman, Montana, and financed Edmonia’s secondary education at Oberlin College—the first American institution to admit women and African Americans.

Here are two photographs of Edmonia taken by Henry Rocher about 1870, and currently in the collection of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. 

Edmonia faced discrimination at Oberlin College and left before she graduated.  But she knew what she wanted.  Again with her brother’s help, she went to Boston to study with the neoclassical sculptor Edward Brackett.  Like any artist, her career was a combination of extremely hard work, garnering patrons, and networking. 

Many of Edmonia’s friends were members of the American abolitionist movement.  Eventually, and against tremendous odds, she began to establish a name for herself as an artist facing three social obstacles:  being female, African American, and Native American.  She publicly identified herself with these threads of her identity, and chose subject matter that held meaning to oppressed people and women. 

Two of her earliest works depicted the abolitionist martyr John Brown, and Robert Gould Shaw, the white commander of an all-black regiment in the American Civil War.  Partially financed with the sale of these pieces, Edmonia traveled to Italy to further her career.  In Rome, she joined a community of American sculptors—including several notable women—and occupied the former studio of the Italian master Antonio Canova. 

Here is a study of Moses, made after the masterpiece by Michelangelo, completed during Edmonia’s time in Rome.   

Edmonia Lewis, Moses (after Michelangelo), 1875.  Smithsonian Institute. 

Fearing that others would not believe her work was truly her own, Edmonia shunned the practice of roughing out her sculptures and hiring Italian artisans to carve them.  Instead, she completed all her own work.  

One piece created during her time in Rome was the bust of Henry Wordsworth Longfellow, below.  Inspired by the poet’s work, “The Song of Hiawatha,” Edmonia had already created sculptures based on his Native American themes.  When she heard that the poet was visiting Rome, she found him in the street, studied his face, and created this bust.   

Edmonia Lewis, Bust of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1872. 

This sculpture, Hagar, was also made in Rome. 


Edmonia Lewis, Hagar, 1875. 

In 1876, Edmonia Lewis sculpted what is known as her masterpiece, The Death of Cleopatra.  This interpretation of the fallen queen stands out because it shows her, vulnerable and stricken, just after being bitten by the asp.  The piece generated a stir when it was shown at the Philadelphia Exposition in 1876 and again at the Chicago Interstate Exposition two years later. 

Edmonia Lewis, Death of Cleopatra, 1876.  Smithsonian Institute

Another important work is Asleep, below.  This is one of four cherub pieces created around 1870.  Asleep won a gold medal at the International Exposition of Paintings and Sculpture, held at the Academy of Arts and Sciences in Naples.

"Asleep" sculpture depicting two children

Edmonia Lewis, Asleep, San Jose (CA) Library. 

There are many sources of biographical information on Edmonia Lewis on the Internet.  I’ve used the one I thought was the best researched and most credible, here.  Please click on the link for much more information about this amazing, inspiring American artist. 

"Some praise me because I am a colored girl, and I don't want that kind of praise. I had rather you would point out my defects, for that will teach me something." 

Edmonia Lewis to Lydia Maria Child.


Lucy said...

I llearned so much! Thanks for this interesting piece of history (You know how much I love and appreciate this kind of stuff:)

Susan B said...

Thank you so much for introducing your readers to these amazing women!

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Her work is wonderful. And I would love to have that middle name, wouldn't you?

Lianne said...

What a beautiful woman. And to think what she did -- against all odds. I particularly love the bust of Longfellow. Thanks for posting this, it is really inspiring. What odds do I have to face with my art when presented with Edmonia Lewis. It's a good thing to remember.

Stephanie N. said...

Wow. What a remarkable woman. What a remarkable person, rather. The Longfellow bust is amazing. I want to reach out and touch so many of these.

Saz said...

thank you for this...I love learning about people especially artists I'm not familiar with.

fascinating. she is beautiful and her artistic style is so pure....

Zuzana said...

Beautiful sculptures! What an unusual woman, one doesn't hear that much about female sculptors.
I think what I find most compelling in her story is the fact that she was determined and brave enough to go her own way.
We can nothing but be inspired by women like these.;)

angela recada said...

What an incredible woman!

Marilyn Richardson said...

Always good to see people interested in Lewis. Google my name in quotes and "Edmonia Lewis" for more reliable articles. Also my catalogue essays on line from Lewis sales at Sotheby's May 21, 2009, American Art Auction, and Cowan's earlier in the year.
- Marilyn Richardson

Awesome Sara said...

wow!!! i learned!!! thanks!!! im waiting for that shooting star to fly over my head

Jean said...

What a great story, and an amazing woman. Thank you, I love these posts you do about incredible women - keep 'em coming!

studioJudith said...

Wow .. . what a girl!
I feel invigorated and inspired, just
knowing about her. I've long been an admirer of Camille Claudel , but had no knowledge of Edmonia.
Thanks for dropping by my blog and
leaving such a dear comment-

drollgirl said...

i had never heard of her before, so this was very interesting. and her work is amazing!

Veronica Wald said...

Her work is extraordinary as is her story, thanks for posting it.
It's ironic that her subjects seem to have been largely Caucasian...I Googled her and came up with only one sculpture of black subjects (Forever Free) and one of American Indian (The Arrow Maker).

Rosaria Williams said...

Thank you for bringing this artist to our attention. I had never heard of her; and I can't believe what fantastic talent she had.

Anonymous said...

lovely blog!

Anonymous said...

That was so interesting for my saturday a.m. blog read! Thank you! She was gorgeous.

Marie said...

What an inspiring artist- and so far ahead of her time to want to be respected for herself rather than as a representative of women or women of color- even though she was because she was such a pioneer! Interesting and beautiful photos.