“There is nothing so beautiful as the free forest. To catch a fish when you are hungry, cut the boughs of a tree, make a fire to roast it, and eat it in the open air, is the greatest of all luxuries. I would not stay a week pent up in cities, if it were not for my passion for art.” — Edmonia Lewis, quoted in “Letter From L. Maria Child,” National Anti-Slavery Standard, 27 Feb. 1864.
Edmonia Lewis, the first professional African-American sculptor, was born in Ohio or New York in 1843 or 1845. Her father was a free African-American and her mother a Chippewa Indian. Orphaned before she was five, Lewis lived with her mother’s nomadic tribe until she was twelve years old. Lewis’s older brother, Sunrise, left the Chippewas and moved to California where he became a gold miner. He financed his sister’s early schooling in Albany, and also helped her to attend Oberlin College in Ohio in 1859. While at Oberlin she shed her Chippewa name “Wildfire” and took the name Mary Edmonia Lewis. Her career at Oberlin ended abruptly when she was accused of poisoning two of her white roommates. Lewis was acquitted of the charge, though she had to endure not only a highly publicized trial but also a severe beating by white vigilantes. Subsequently accused of stealing art supplies, she was not permitted to graduate from Oberlin.
Lewis left Oberlin in 1863 and, again through her brother’s encouragement and financial assistance, moved to Boston. There she met the portrait sculptor Edward Brackett under whose direction she began her limited sculptural studies. She was determined to become a sculptor. With a minimum of training, exposure, and experience, Lewis began producing medallion portraits of well-known abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Sumner, and Wendell Phillips. With sales of her portrait busts of abolitionist John Brown and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the Boston hero and white leader of the celebrated all-African-American 54th Regiment of the Civil War, Lewis was able to finance her first trip to Europe in 1865.
After traveling to London, Paris, and Florence, Lewis decided to settle in Rome where she rented a studio near the Piazza Barberini during the winter of 1865 and 1866. When Lewis arrived in Rome, sculptors favored the neoclassical style that was marked by a lofty idealism and Greco-Roman resources. She quickly learned Italian and became acquainted with two prominent white Americans living in Rome, the actress Charlotte Cushman and the sculptor Harriet Hosmer. A number of other American sculptors lived in Rome at this time because of the availability of fine white marble and the many Italian stonecarvers who were adept at transferring a sculptor’s plaster models into finished marble products. Lewis was unique among sculptors of her generation in Rome as she rarely employed Italian workmen, and completed most of her work without assistance. Her motivation was probably twofold: lack of money and fear of the loss of originality in her work.
Unfortunately, most of Lewis’s sculptures have not survived. Portrait busts of abolitionists and patrons such as Anna Quincy Waterston, and subjects depicting her dual African-American and Native American ancestry were her specialty. Lewis also completed several mythological subjects or “fancy pieces” such as Asleep, Awake, and Poor Cupid, and at least three religious subjects, including a lost Adoration of the Magi of 1883, and copies of Italian Renaissancesculpture.
Her Moses, copied after Michelangelo, is an example of Lewis’s imitative talents; the sensitively carved Hagar (also known as Hagar in the Wilderness) is probably the masterpiece among her known surviving works. In the Old Testament, Hagar—Egyptian maidservant to Abraham’s wife Sarah—was the mother of Abraham’s first son Ishmael. The jealous Sarah cast Hagar into the wilderness after the birth of Sarah’s son Isaac. In Lewis’s sculpture Egypt represents black Africa, and Hagar is a symbol of courage and the mother of a long line of African kings. That Lewis depicted ethnic and humanitarian subject matter greatly distinguished her from other neoclassical sculptors.
Newspaper accounts reveal that Lewis returned to the United States in 1872 to attend an exhibition of her works at the San Francisco Art Association. The San Francisco Pacific Appeal reported that Lewis was in the United States again in October 1875, and made a brief appearanceat a concert held in St. Paul, Minnesota. After 1875, facts concerning the remainder of Lewis’s life as well as the date and place of death are obscure and conflicting. She never married, had no children, and was last reported living in Rome in 1911.
Lewis greatly admired the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and was especially attracted to his epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha. Lewis completed at least three figural groups inspired by the poem: The Wooing of Hiawatha, The Marriage of Hiawatha and Minnehaha, and The Departure of Hiawatha and Minnehaha. While in Rome in 1869, Longfellow visited Lewis’s studio where he sat for a portrait and probably saw the sculptures his poem inspired. Until recently the only surviving known work from Lewis’s Hiawatha and Minnehaha series was a pair of small busts of the young lovers, which were probably studies for the figurative groups. In 1991, however, Lewis’s Marriage of Hiawatha and Minnehaha was rediscovered.
Regenia A. Perry Free within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art in Association with Pomegranate Art Books, 1992)