Edmonia Lewis – American Sculptor (1844?-1907?)
I had never hear of Edmonia Lewis until last year when I clicked on a MS blog link from my Facebook page. MS was dedicating a blog post each day throughout Black History month to honor the accomplishments of many black women that history has forgotten, Edmonia Lewis being one of them. This series by MS was the main inspiration for my posting a bit about a woman artist each day this March.
Details about her birth are unclear. There are accounts that range from 1840-46 and in either Ohio, Newark, NJ or near Albany, NY. What is clear is that she was the daughter of an Ojibwe (Chippewa) mother and freed black, possibly from the West Indies, father. Her parents died when she was very young and older brother went west to earn his fortune in the gold rush, leaving her in the care of her mother’s family and tribe. She claimed that her given name from her mother’s tribe was Wild Fire, free and untamed.
Lewis’s brother, Samuel, became very successful in Montana and was able to financially support her and send her to obtain an college education at Oberlin College in Ohio – the only college at the time that permitted both women and African Americans to attend. There was an incident where she was accused of poisoning two white women living with her, but she was cleared of any charges and continued her education at Oberlin, but did not complete her degree. She decided, with the financial assistance from her brother, to head East to Boston and pursue her education as a sculptor from Edward A. Brackett.
Shortly after her arrival in Boston her reputation as a talented sculptor took off. She drew inspiration for her work from Native American and African heritages and of the heroics from the abolitionists and Civil War heroes. Her most famous work of art during her lifetime was Forever Free and Old Arrow-Maker and His Daughter. Both sculptures reflect her values and influences.
In 1865, after the Civil War ended, Lewis made enough income from her work that she was able to follow her dream of living and working in Italy.
She eventually settled in Rome and became very close with other American artists in the area. Her sculpture was highly sought after and she enjoyed a very successful career.
Eventually in the 1880’s the popularity of her style of sculpture waned and a more modern aesthetic became the vogue. She still enjoyed some success, but slowly became forgotten about by the public and eventually the history books.
Not much is known about the last years of her life. Her death seems to be as unclear as her birth. There are accounts that she died in 1907-1911 in London, America and Italy. Where she is buried is unknown.
What I find so amazing about her is her determination to be known and her celebration of both her Native and African heritages in a time when women and non-whites were expected to be quiet. She was truly a unique and gifted individual.
Most information for this post came from the Lakewood Library in Ohio. check the page out for additional information about Edmonia Lewis.