Tuesday, September 15, 2015
Discovery of new work by Edmonia Lewis, the most important African-American & Native Indian woman sculptor of the 19th century
An important work by the 19th-Century Edmonia Lewis (1842-1907), has come to light. The marble 1870 "Bust of Christ" is in the collection of the Bute family on the Isle of Bute in Scotland.
Lewis had created an earlier work, also religious in nature, for the Marquis of Bute, one of her earliest British patrons. That piece, "Madonna and Child With Angels, " is now lost and thought to have been destroyed in a fire.
A work described as a Head of Christ by Lewis was auctioned in London in the latter part of the 19th-Century, but with no illustration and scant information. Edmonia Lewis is an African-American woman sculptor who has been “rediscovered” in the last decade but there are still many gaps in her biography.
Born in 1844, of African-American and Indian descent, both of her parents had died by the time she was nine. Her mother's two sisters then adopted both Lewis and her older brother Samuel, who was born in 1832. The children remained with their aunts near Niagara Falls for about the next four years. Lewis, who went by her Native American name Wildfire, and her aunts sold Ojibwe baskets and other souvenirs, such as moccasins and blouses, to tourists visiting Niagara Falls, Toronto, and Buffalo.
In 1856, Lewis was enrolled at New York Central College in McGrawville, which was a Baptist abolitionist school. During her summer term there in 1858, Lewis took classes in the Primary Department in order to prepare for courses she would later take in collegiate programs. In a later interview, Lewis claimed she remained at the school for three years but left when she was "declared to be wild.”
In 1859, with help from her brother Samuel and abolitionists, Lewis was sent to Oberlin College at the age of about fifteen, where she changed her name to Mary Edmonia Lewis. At the time, Oberlin College was one of the first higher learning institutions in the United States to admit women and people of races. Lewis's decision to attend Oberlin was one that would significantly change her life, as that is where she began her art studies.
The problems which occurred here have never been satisfactorily explained. She was accused of poisoning two classmates with spiced wine. While the two women recovered, they were seriously ill and the townspeople blamed Edmonia, beating her up badly.
Due to the attack, local authorities arrested Lewis, charging her with poisoning her friends. The college defended their student throughout the trial. John Mercer Langston, an Oberlin College alumnus, and the only practicing African-American lawyer in Oberlin, represented Lewis during her trial. Although most witnesses spoke against her and she did not testify, the jury acquitted her of the charges.
About a year after the trial, Lewis was accused of stealing artists' materials from the college. Even though she was acquitted due to lack of evidence, she was forbidden from registering for her last term by the principal of the Young Ladies' Course, which prevented Lewis from graduating.
In 1864, she moved to Boston, and after initial difficulties, found a male sculptor who was willing to teach her. Her inspirations were the abolitionists of the day which in turn brought her public notice. She was able to go to Rome in 1866 where she spent most of her professional career.
While in Rome Edmonia Lewis adopted the neoclassical style of sculpture, as seen in this nude bust. The Walters Art Museum.
In the late 1880s, the neoclassism declined in popularity, as did the popularity of Lewis's artwork. She continued sculpting in marble, increasingly creating altarpieces and other works for Roman Catholic patrons.In the art world, she became eclipsed by history and lost fame. By 1901 she had moved to London.The events of her later years are not known. She died in 1907, a now obscure figure.