By Ellen Maidman-Tanner
There are times when my normally optimistic, glass-half-full self reacts negatively and angrily. This is always the case when I discover a great American artist who never made it into my art education because that artist was female, or of color, or both. I feel duped, cheated, and wonder what my self-perception would have been if I had known about the many talented female artists who had gone before, but had been left out of the books. In this regard, and in honor of Black History Month last month and Women’s History Month this month, I have chosen to write about Edmonia Lewis, an amazing ground-breaking sculptor, whose life is a powerful tale of talent and determination.
Born (free) in upstate NY in 1844 and orphaned at the age of 7, one has no sense that this young woman would go on to have her work internationally recognized and commissioned, in one instance for a sum of $50,000. She was raised by her mother’s tribe (Chippewa, Ojibwa), adopted by an aunt and uncle, and was sent to attend Oberlin Preparatory School, followed by Oberlin College in Ohio in 1959. This was one of the few schools that accepted women of color. However, a number of personal threats, due it appear to racism, forced her to leave Ohio before graduating.
Edmonia first established herself as a sculptor in Boston, studying with a local sculptor. Her early work was of famous antislavery heroes. In 1864, she opened up her studio for her first one-woman exhibition. Her career was documented widely in the abolitionist press of the times.
She then moved to Rome in 1865, where she became involved with other American female sculptors and began to work in marble. The classicism of the times fused in her work with those personages and stories that resonated with her own heritage. She went on to sculpt heads and biblical scenes. In the later stages of her life, she focused on works depicting events from her Native American heritage as well as scenes of black oppression.
Her most famous work is “The Death of Cleopatra”, a 3,015-pound marble sculpture created for the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia and recorded to have drawn thousands of viewers. It can be seen now, after its very checkered, frequently neglected existence, at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art.
The excellent Wikipedia article on Edmonia Lewis ends with these important thoughts:
“As a black artist, Edmonia Lewis had to be conscious of her stylistic choices, as her largely white audience often gravely misread her work as self-portraiture. In order 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.”
In her 2007 work, Charmaine Nelson wrote of Lewis:
'It is hard to overstate the visual incongruity of the black-Native female body, let alone that identity in a sculptor, within the Roman colony. As the first black-Native sculptor of either sex to achieve international recognition within a western sculptural tradition, Lewis was a symbolic and social anomaly within a dominantly white bourgeois and aristocratic community.'
Edmonia’s life in some respects reminded me of that of Artemisia Gentileschi, whose works were larger than life, whose personal life was marked by violence, and who never married, but remained forever wedded to her art. I am glad, honored to know about Edmonia Lewis today. I wish I had known about her when I was a young artist.
*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)