Edmonia Lewis was the first major sculptress of African-American and Native American heritage. She “represented a fresh approach to the neoclassical sculpture tradition, injecting as she did timely yet universal human rights issues and developing a more emotional, naturalistic style than her contemporaries.”
Many details about her early life were uncertain. Her birth probably occurred in 1843 or 1845. Her father, a gentleman’s servant, was a full-blooded African-American, while her mother was a Chippewa American Indian. Lewis, orphaned before she was five, lived with her mother’s tribe, among whom she was known as Wildfire, till she was about twelve. She made baskets, embroidered moccasins, and sold her crafts as the tribe traveled about New York state.
Lewis left the Chippewas when her brother, Sunrise, a California gold miner, arranged for her to receive schooling in Albany, New York. In 1859 his financial assistance made it possible for her to enter Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. It was at Oberlin that she assumed the name Mary Edmonia Lewis, but throughout the rest of her life she seldom used the name Mary.
As Lewis pursued liberal arts studies at college, she discovered her talent for art. “I had always wanted to make the form of things,” she later recalled; “and while I was at school I tried to make drawings of people and things.” In 1862 she drew Muse Urania (now in the Oberlin College Archive), her only extant drawing, which she created as a wedding present for her classmate Clara Steele Norton.
Lewis left Oberlin under a cloud: In 1862 two white female students accused her of poisoning them and a year later she was accused of stealing art supplies. Though neither case was proven, the college refused to allow her to graduate.
Lewis then moved to Boston, where, inspired by Richard Greenough’s life-size statue of Benjamin Franklin, she began to establish herself as a sculptress receiving advice from the portrait sculptor Edward Brackett. With the Civil War raging, for her first sculptures she chose medallion portraits, modeled in plaster and clay, of war heroes and white antislavery leaders. During the war she also executed her first portrait bust, the subject being Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, a white Boston native who was killed as he led his black troops to battle.
In 1865 Lewis moved to Europe to be near the roots of Western artistic tradition. At first she thought about living in England because of its abolitionist community. However, after visits to London, Paris and Florence, she settled in Rome during the winter of 1865-66. Lewis found Rome especially attractive because of its nonsexist treatment of women artists.
Following traditional practice, she learned to carve in marble by copying classical sculptures, many of which she sold to American tourists.
Her most consistent income resulted from commissions by Admirers living in America, especially Boston. Unlike many of her peers, she did not hire artisans to enlarge her small clay and plaster models and to carve the final marble versions. Lewis carved the marble versions herself. She created at least forty-six pieces.
Because of her dual heritage and her classical studies, Lewis developed a unique style. Like other neoclassical artists of her time, she based her sculpting technique on an adaptation of classical models. Unlike the others, however, she avoided ideas and images from classical art, history and literature. Her subject matter and emotional content reflected in the burning racial issues of the nineteenth century.
The Freed Woman and Her Child (1866) and Forever Free (1867 – Howard University) both deal with the subject of emancipation. The latter work evokes the newly freed slaves’ powerful emotions through a standing male figure, whose left arm holds a broken chain, and through a kneeling female figure who is praying. Both figures look upward.
In 1868 Lewis sculpted Hagar, or Hagar in the Wilderness (National Museum of Art). Hagar the Egyptian (and therefore, in nineteenth century interpretation, black) biblical concubine to Abraham, served as a means for Lewis to comment on both racial and gender oppression. She described as her motivation for this work “a strong sympathy for all women who have struggled and suffered.”
Some of Lewis’s work reflected her Native American heritage. From 1869 to 1871 she carved a portrait bust of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Harvard University portrait collection), whose poem “The Song of Hiawatha” greatly influenced her. In 1872 she finished Old Arrow Maker or The Old Arrow Maker and His Daughter (National Museum of American Art), a sentimental portrait designed to counteract the period’s stereotyped image of Native Americans as savages.
Lewis’s last major commission was Adoration of the Magi, which she worked on for a Baltimore church in 1883. The sculpture probably reflected her conversion to Catholicism in Rome in 1868.
The last recorded report of her existence in Rome was in 1911, and the date and place of the death of Edmonia Lewis is unknown. Mary Edmonia (“Wildfire”) Lewis earned her place in art history through the true merits of her emotionally charged neoclassicism, and in social history as the first woman of mixed African-American and Native American heritage to attain international stature in the art of sculpting.
Edmonia Lewis sculptures (left to right) The Old Arrow Maker and His Daughter, Forever Free