March 20, 2016–Edmonia Wildfire Lewis, Sculptor
Though no words come forth from the marble itself, the sculptures of Edmonia Lewis speak the truths she held in her heart.
Edmonia Lewis was born in 1844 in New York to a father of Afro-Haitian descent and a mother of Mississauga Ojibwe and African-American descent. By the age of nine, she had lost both parents, and she and her brother Samuel lived with their Ojibwe aunts near Niagra Falls. Lewis made Ojibwe baskets and souvenirs for tourists. During this time, the two children went by their Native American names–Edmonia was Wildfire and her brother Samuel was Sunshine.
In 1856, Lewis enrolled in New York Central College, a Baptist Abolitionist School. It was not a good fit for a woman named Wildfire. She stayed only three years, leaving when she was “declared to be wild.”
In 1859, Wildfire changed her name to Mary Edmonia Lewis and attended Oberlin College. It was then she began her art studies. Oberlin would change her life, not all of it for the good. A nasty incident occurred in which Lewis was accused of poisoning two of her classmates. Controversy broke out because Lewis had purportedly given an aphrodisiac to the two women, named in the case. She was put on trial.
The consequences were worse than that, though. Walking home one night she was captured by anti-abolitionists and dragged into a field. They beat her severely. She recovered and was later acquitted of all charges, but her time at Oberlin was forever marred. She was later accused of stealing art supplies and left for Boston to begin her career as a sculptor.
Following a rocky introduction into the male dominated world of professional sculptors, Lewis finally opened her first exhibit in 1864. Early works included medallion portraits of the abolitionists John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison. Lewis also drew inspiration from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha. She made several busts of its leading characters which he drew from Ojibwe legend.
Following her early success, Lewis made her way to Rome to continue her development. Italy’s less stringent racial/color identification provided her the opportunity she needed. She began sculpting in marble, working within the neoclassical manner, but focusing on naturalism within themes and images relating to black and American Indian people.
Lewis was unique in the way she approached sculpting. She insisted on enlarging her clay and wax models in marble herself, rather than hire native Italian sculptors to do it for her, which was the common practice. Male sculptors were largely skeptical of the talent of female sculptors, and often accused them of not doing their own work.
Despite the manly naysayers, Lewis’ work began to sell, and sell big. In 1873 she sold two commissions for $50,000 solidifying her position as a prominent artist.
Lewis created one of her most famous works, The Death of Cleopatra, for the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. She selected a monumental 3,015-pound marble block to portray the queen in the throes of death.
Cleopatra was considered a woman of both sensuous beauty and demonic power. In The Death of Cleopatra, Lewis portrayed the Egyptian queen in a disheveled, inelegant manner, a departure from the prim Victorian approach to representing death.
And get this–much of the viewing public was shocked (!) by Lewis’s frank portrayal of death. And also get this–the statue drew thousands of viewers. (!!!)
Lewis died in 1907 in Hammersmith area of London, England of Bright’s Diseasea, a kidney ailment. According to parish records she is buried in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery, in London.