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 Edmonia Lewis  (1845 - 1907)

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Lived/Active: Massachusetts/California / Italy      Known for: sculpture-Indian figure

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Ad Code: 2
Edmonia Lewis
from Auction House Records.
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
(Mary) Edmonia Lewis was a Neo-Classical sculptor of figural work in carved marble. The daughter of a Chippewa Indian mother and a black father she experienced much discrimination. Her work was expressive of the emotions she felt from these experiences.

She was born in 1845 near Albany, New York where she was orphaned at age four and raised by her mother's tribe with whom she had a nomadic existence until she was twelve. In 1856, with the support of some abolitionists, she enrolled at Oberlin College in Ohio, the first interracial college in the United States. She studied liberal arts but became the subject of scandal when she was accused of trying to give poison wine to several coeds. She was subsequently beaten severely by a vigilante mob. Defended by a black lawyer she was acquitted when the so-called poison turned out to be aphrodisiac.

Lewis then went to Boston in 1865 where she studied sculpture with Edward Augustus Brackett, and her first work was a medallion honoring abolitionist John Brown. She also made a portrait bust of Colonel Robert Shaw, the leader of a black Civil War regiment.

The sale of reproductions of this popular bust enabled Lewis to go to Rome about 1867, and there she became an important member of the "White Marmorean Flock," Henry James's mordant epithet for the expatriate American women sculptors in Rome, a group that included Harriet Hosmer.

Largely self-taught, she created many pieces that addressed the feelings of alienation of blacks and also Biblical subjects. She was a convert to Catholicism, and was extremely proud when Pope Pius IX visited her studio and blessed a work in progress.

Lewis is best known for the works she did that relate to her own ancestry studies of slaves and various Indian subjects, including scenes from "Hiawatha," 1868. She also produced numerous busts of such prominent personalities as Charles Sumner, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Abraham Lincoln.

In 1873, she went to California for an exhibition of her work at the San Francisco Art Association. Three years later Lewis's last major work, "The Death of Cleopatra," was exhibited at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and attracted critical attention. It shows the queen a moment after the asp's bite and clearly demonstrates the physical effects of approaching death. The praises she received from this work led to President Ulysses Grant posing for her.

Edmonia Lewis was active in Rome as late as 1887.

Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Artists

She lived in London, England according to the 1901 Census.

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
9 January 2011

Cultural historian Marilyn Richardson has solved one of the persistent mysteries of American art history: where and when did the sculptor Edmonia Lewis die? The answer is, London, England, on 17 September 1907. According to British records, Lewis, whose full name was Mary Edmonia Lewis, had been living in the Hammersmith area of London and died in the Hammersmith Borough Infirmary. She left a modest financial estate.

Beginning with publications from the late 19th-century, the date of her death has been given as anywhere between 1895 and 1911 with no supporting primary evidence. Although she was a prolific and successful artist, Edmonia Lewis maintained an aura of mystery throughout her career with varying stories about her origins as the daughter of a woman of Ojibway descent and a black father from the West Indies. Lewis began her career in Boston, Massachusetts, and moved to Rome, Italy, in 1866. From there she made frequent trips back to the United States to exhibit and sell her work.

Richardson has published widely on Lewis and has written catalogue essays on her work for Sotheby's and other auction houses. Recent sales of her sculpture from the 1860s have fetched record prices of $250,000 and above.

Now that Edmonia Lewis's death is documented, Richardson says, the search is still on for official birth records to confirm Lewis's claim that she was born in upstate New York. Proof of her birthplace and date have so far eluded determined scholars and researchers.

Marilyn Richardson, Principal
Art + History Consultants

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Edmonia Lewis was born in Albany, New York on July 14, 1845.  After graduating from Oberlin College in 1863, Lewis studied sculpture with Edward Brackett in Boston and in Rome.  She came to San Francisco in 1873 attempting to sell her works.  While there, she exhibited in San Jose and sold a marble bust of Abraham Lincoln to the San Jose Library.  From there she returned to Rome, Italy and was active there into the 1880s.  She died in London, England on September 17, 1907. 

Exhibited:  International Centennial Exposition (Philadelphia), 1876. 

Works held:  National Museum of American Art; Metropolitan Museum. 
Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"
Nearly 20,000 biographies can be found in Artists in California 1786-1940 by Edan Hughes and is available for sale ($150). For a full book description and order information please click here.

Biography from Charleston Renaissance Gallery:
Mary Edmonia Lewis (1845 - 1907)

Endowed with talent and tenacity, sculptor Edmonia Lewis courageously defied overwhelming odds to become an artistic pioneer whose work was powerfully informed by her ethnicity and experiences with discrimination and the socio-political issues of the latter nineteenth century.  As a member of what the author Henry James called "the strange sisterhood," Lewis joined other expatriate female sculptors, including Harriet Hosmer and Anne Whitney, in Rome, where she created much of her best work and, in later years, hosted such notables as Frederick Douglass.  Though she enjoyed both substantial critical and moderate financial success during her lifetime, her significance in the canon has grown measurably in recent years.

Many of the facts of Lewis' childhood are tinged with mystery, even the years of her birth and death.  A natural marketeer, she carefully crafted an enigmatic persona as a means to commercial promotion and career advancement.  Born to an African American father and Chippewa mother in upstate New York and orphaned at an early age, Lewis, known then by the name "Wild Fire," was raised in nomadic fashion by her mother's tribe.  Her older brother Samuel, having found his own success in the American West, arranged for Lewis to attend a private secondary school and then Oberlin College in Ohio, the nation's first integrated college.  She matriculated in 1859, but never graduated. Her time at Oberlin was marred by controversy, including an accusation, severe beating, and eventual acquittal of attempting to poison two white students.

In 1863, Lewis moved to Boston, where she studied under the master sculptor Edward A. Brackett and was embraced by a circle of influential abolitionists.  Her earliest works include a medallion of the abolitionist martyr John Brown and an 1864 bust of Robert Gould Shaw, the leader of a black Civil War regiment; sales of the plaster copies of this latter work financed her inaugural trip to Italy. It was there, first in Florence and then in Rome, that Lewis established her reputation with the creation of works such as the Emancipation statues, The Freedwoman and Her Child (1866; location unknown) and Forever Free (1867; Howard University Collection, Washington, D.C.), as well as a series of figures, particularly The Marriage of Hiawatha (1867), illuminating Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem, Song of Hiawatha.  Lewis exhibited her massive, two-ton masterwork, The Death of Cleopatra (1876; Smithsonian American Art Museum), at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia to public acclaim. Many of her later works related to biblical themes (the result of her conversion to Catholicism) or portrayed historic figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses S. Grant.

From 1895 on, details of Edmonia Lewis's life are scarce.  She is believed to have lived abroad in England, France, and Italy in her advanced years.

Longfellow's poem, Song of Hiawatha, was the best-selling poem of the nineteenth century.  Given her Native American descent, Lewis found it a meaningful subject and created a series of busts and groupings that portrayed the Ojibway characters, Hiawatha and Minnehaha.  Another version of this bust is held by the Newark Museum, New Jersey.

For more information on this artist and work, please contact us.
This essay is copyrighted by the Charleston Renaissance Gallery and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission from Hicklin Galleries, LLC.

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Edmonia Lewis is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Black American Artists
Women Artists

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