Eight facts about the life of Edmonia Lewis

edmonia lewis

A c. 1870 photo portrait of Lewis from the National Portrait Gallery (via Wikipedia)

Maybe you saw this week that the Google Doodle on Wednesday honored the 19th century American sculptor Edmonia Lewis. And maybe you also noticed that Lewis was born in what's now Rensselaer.

The mention of Lewis prompted us to read up on her a bit and she is fascinating. From a biography, The Indominitable Spirit of Edmonia Lewis, by Harry Brinton Henderson and Albert Henderson:

Think of Edmonia Lewis as an artist at war. As her heroes took to the gun, the pen, or the pulpit to attack the cruel social order of the 1800s, she weighed in with artistic gifts and tools meant for clay, plaster, and marble. In the grand struggle for respect, she was a regiment of one.
With every image she create, every appearance she made, and every interview she gave the press, she undermined the lies of white advantage in a cool counterpoint to the rage of Civil War and Reconstruction. Physically tiny and personally charming, she taunted the demons of bigotry as she carved her heritage and appeared with her work alongside the best artists of the day.

Here are eight bits about her life...

She was born in what's now Rensselaer
Edmonia Lewis was born in Greenbush, New York -- what's now Rensselaer -- "on or about" July 4, 1844. (Like many aspects of her early life, the specifics aren't exactly clear.) Her father was African American -- he had spent time in Haiti and is thought to have been from New Jersey -- and her mother was Native American born in Albany.

Both parents died when Lewis was a young child. When she was eight years old, a brother arranged for her to attend school in Albany.

Her early childhood was in Native American communities
Lewis spent her early childhood in Native American communities, though it's not clear where exactly. She claimed Chippewa roots through her mother, but as the Hendersons write in The Indominitable Spirit of Edmonia Lewis, there's evidence she lived among Mohawks along the New York-Quebec border and that she might have obscured or been vague about her specific heritage because of negative stereotypes associated with Mohawks at the time.

Later in life, Lewis would frequently talk about living with Native Americans as a child and it inspired some of her later work.

She attended Oberlin
After going to school in Albany, she attended an abolitionist college near Cortland for a few years. Then, with the help of her brother, she enrolled at Oberlin College in Ohio, the first US college to admit students of all races.

It was at Oberlin that Lewis started to take a serious interest in art. It was also the scene of a horrific episode in which Lewis was charged with poisoning two housemates and she was abducted, beaten, and left for dead after the allegation. She was defended at trial by the famous abolitionist attorney John Mercer Langston and acquitted. But she was shunned, later accused of thievery, and not allowed to enroll for her final term.

She was connected with many famous abolitionists
During her life Lewis would be connected to or cross paths with many prominent abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. After leaving Oberlin and traveling to Boston, Garrison arranged for Lewis to study sculpture with Edward Brackett. And that's when she became a professional artist, earning money for producing medallions of figures such as John Brown and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. (She was reportedly paid $20 for one of those first medallions -- that's more than $500 in today's dollars.)

"I was practically driven to Rome in order to obtain the opportunities for art culture, and to find a social atmosphere where I was not constantly reminded of my color. The land of liberty had no room for a colored sculptor."

Her career took off in Rome
Lewis eventually decided she needed to leave Boston to further her career -- and, using the money from that early work, she traveled to Europe, eventually settling in Rome. From an 1878 NYT profile of her: "I was practically driven to Rome in order to obtain the opportunities for art culture, and to find a social atmosphere where I was not constantly reminded of my color. The land of liberty had no room for a colored sculptor."

It was there she started working with marble and made sculptures in the neoclassical style. She would frequently return to the United States for tours and to sell her work.

She was part of a feminist circle of artists
While in Rome, Lewis became part of a circle of artists and expats that included Nathaniel Hawthorne, George Eliot, Henry James -- and a group of feminist artists, chief among them the the sculptor Harriet Hosmer. This group of female artists was apparently considered rather scandalous for being, well, themselves (some of whom were lesbians). And Henry James snidely referred to them as "that strange sisterhood of American 'lady sculptors'" and the "The White Marmorean Flock" -- a term that included a bonus dis by omitting Lewis. And as much as she was connected to these circles, Lewis apparently was always a bit of an outsider.

death of cleopatra by edmonia lewis
The Death of Cleopatra

She and her work were famous
As mentioned above, Lewis would frequently return to the United States for tours, and she was often covered by the press (example). Her 1876 sculpture The Death of Cleopatra caused a big stir at the Centennial Exhibition that year in Philadelphia, generating both shock and acclaim for its realism.

As famous as The Death of Cleopatra was at the time, it ended getting lost for much of a century before turning up in the storage area of a shopping mall near Chicago. It's now in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

She ended up getting lost, too
Much like that famous sculpture, Lewis herself was lost for much of century -- because it wasn't clear when or where exactly she had died. There were theories she might have been in Rome or northern California. But records indicate she died in London, England in 1907 and is buried in a Catholic cemetery there.

The above really just scratches the surface of the life of Edmonia Lewis. Further reading:
+ The Indominitable Spirit of Edmonia Lewis, by Harry Brinton Henderson and Albert Henderson
+ "The Life and Death of Edmonia Lewis, Spinster and Sculptor" by Talia Lavin at The Toast
+ The profile page of Lewis at the Smithsonian American Art Museum
+ A Google Arts & Culture slideshow of her work

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