Featured in
Issue 7

The Black Female Figure

The extraordinary life of artist Mary Edmonia Lewis, a sculptor of African American and indigenous heritage who achieved international acclaim 

BY Dr. Charmaine A. Nelson in Features | 21 AUG 18

In 1864, the renowned abolitionist stronghold of Boston no doubt seemed the perfect place for Mary Edmonia Lewis to regroup after her trial in Oberlin, Ohio, and veritable expulsion from college. The community that boasted the first co-educational and racially inclusive school had failed to protect her from the prolific racism that permeated the US. Yet, the little we know of this eminent 19th-century sculptor demonstrates that Lewis was nothing if not resilient. 

Her erasure from art history is a manifestation of the pervasive neglect of women artists of colour. With great intelligence and tenacity,  Lewis created a space for herself within the exclusive and competitive world of 19th-century Neoclassical sculpture, embarking on a career at a time when its ranks were filled almost exclusively with upper-class, white men. In the 1850s, when the majority of African Americans in the US were still in bondage, Lewis – who was born in 1844 of Chippewa and African ancestry – decided to become an artist. To the average white American – even to sympathetic abolitionists – her dream would have seemed preposterous. Yet, by the late 19th century, at the pinnacle of Neoclassicism’s popularity, she had become an international superstar with her own Roman studio and celebrity and royal patronage on both sides of the Atlantic. Lewis was one of a handful of US-born people of colour to partake in the Grand Tour. The material practices, aesthetics, ideals and priorities of Neoclassicism – as well as the attendant intellectual and social demands of its cliquish, jealous and gossipy community – were designed to exclude all but a tiny elite.

Understanding the improbability of Lewis’s stunning accomplishments entails a recognition of the naked human body as the focal point of Neoclassical sculpture. The body required a raison d’être or narrative structure to justify its bare state. Through the austere abstraction of white marble and the use of religious, ideal or ancient themes, unclothed bodies were transformed into art: nudes fit for intellectual contemplation. However, other than the sculpture Night (Two Sleeping Children) (1870), if Lewis sculpted nudes, they have yet to be found. Yet, her extant sculptures demonstrate a clear progression in her hard-won mastery of the human form. 

In the 19th century, the sculptor’s skill was developed via two key educational pathways: life-drawing classes in art schools and the medical study of cadavers. However, both routes were summarily closed to most women and people of colour. But while Lewis’s white, female contemporaries, such as Harriet Hosmer and Anne Whitney, gained access to the requisite study of human anatomy through family money and private tutors, Lewis had no such connections to exploit. Remarkably, in an art form that demanded years of careful anatomical study, Lewis was largely self-taught.

Photograph of Mary Edmonia Lewis, c.1870. Courtesy: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

She embellished her spotty early biography with stories of an ‘exotic’ childhood, raised amongst her mother’s indigenous family, seemingly contrived to pander to white curiosity. Quickly surmising the media’s questionable racial motivations, Lewis learned to exploit journalistic interest, peppering her interviews with tantalizing and improbable tidbits about her cultural awakening to Western ‘civilization’.1 Yet, she was also deeply proud of her heritage and defiantly proclaimed that she was a mixed-race woman with no European blood. 

Supposedly born in upstate New York and orphaned at an early age, Lewis was taken in by her mother’s nomadic family, who exposed her to various forms of cultural production. Mentored by an older brother, she was sent to study at Oberlin College in the early 1860s, where nascent signs of her artistic abilities were revealed in the pencil sketch The Muse Urania (1862), a wedding gift for a classmate. After being accused and tried for the alleged poisoning of fellow students with Spanish fly, Lewis was successfully defended by the famous black lawyer John Mercer Langston. However, she did not escape Oberlin unscathed – physically or mentally. During her trial in the winter of 1862, Lewis was attacked by a mob, savagely beaten, stripped and left for dead. Although exonerated, Lewis was unable to graduate as the college refused to let her re-enrol. 

In Boston, Lewis encountered an abolitionist hub where activists including William Lloyd Garrison fought for the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. Garrison furnished her with letters of introduction and the sculptor Edward Brackett provided sculpting tools, a few lessons and words of encouragement. Lewis’s first studio was in the Studio Building on 89 Tremont Street, where she welcomed patrons such as Maria Weston Chapman, the editor of the anti-slavery journal The Non-Resistant, and the activist and writer Lydia Maria Child. Boston also provided Lewis with access to professional black artists.
It is likely that she and the African-Canadian landscape painter Edward Mitchell Bannister, who lived at 85 Tremont Street, became familiar. Both Bannister and Lewis exhibited portraits of the martyred, northern, white abolitionist hero, Robert Gould Shaw, who died in 1863 while leading the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry – the first all-black regiment in the Civil War.

Mary Edmonia Lewis, Morning of Liberty/Forever Free, 1867, marble, 105 x 56 x 43 cm. Courtesy: Howard University Art Gallery, Washington, D.C.

 With money earned from the sale of the small Shaw bust, Lewis purchased her passage to Europe. Her passport application listed her as a four-foot-tall, 20-year-old woman of black complexion.2 Setting sail in August of 1865, Lewis suffered racist indignities on board which she related in a letter to Child. The steamships that criss-crossed the Atlantic did not offer luxury to all. Rather, black passengers and other ‘undesirables’ were often denied cabins, regardless of financial means, and had to make the crossing in steerage or even, dangerously, above deck. 

After visiting London, Paris and Florence, Lewis arrived in Rome in early 1866, where she quickly established a studio. The social world of Rome was full of wealthy, white expatriates with the means to uproot entire families for years at a time for travel, intellectual pursuits and cultural education. The American actress Charlotte Cushman, the novelists Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James, the sculptor William Wetmore Story and politicians including Charles Sumner socialized, schemed and made art side-by-side, often with great rivalry and open hostility for each other. 

James soon lumped Lewis into his disparagingly named ‘white, marmorean flock’.3Although Hosmer, Louisa Lander, Lewis, Lavinia ‘Vinnie’ Ream Hoxie, Emma Stebbins, Whitney and others had shared an informal support network, not a uniform artistic vision, James, Story and other white men were clearly both jealous and weary of these independent women. They had reason to be. Each, in her own way, defied the claustrophobic norms of sex and gender to embark upon professional artistic careers in a foreign country and, in many cases, to reject heteronormative social mores – such as marriage and motherhood – altogether. Indeed, Cushman and Stebbins were romantic partners and Hosmer, too, pursued same-sex relationships. 

Yet, while Lewis was often described as an ‘exotic’ member of ‘the flock’, her class identity also positioned her as an outsider. Her wealthy, white peers could prioritize artistic ambition over patronage and sales; once in Rome, however, Lewis began sculpting copies of canonical artworks to sell to tourists for her upkeep. Indeed, correspondence from Lewis and others demonstrates that she was often in dire financial straits.4 However, against the vigorous disapproval of conditional supporters like Child – who thought her too untutored and ambitious for her own good – she also immediately embarked upon her first original works. Morning of Liberty (Forever Free) (1867) is an ambitious two-figure sculpture of a standing black man and a kneeling, prayerful black woman celebrating their emancipation. Unlike Thomas Ball’s Emancipation Memorial (c.1866) and John Quincy Adams Ward’s The Freedman (1863), Lewis’s proud, black male is not crouching at a benevolent Abraham Lincoln’s feet nor merely contemplating standing, an act which symbolized the attainment of manhood. Rather, Lewis’s black male is erect and already clearly a man. With his foot trampling a ball and chain and his right hand caressing the woman’s shoulder, they are one unit, a family and he is their protector – a status strategically denied to black males within Transatlantic Slavery.

Mary Edmonia Lewis, Death of Cleopatra, 1876, marble, 160 x 79 x 117 cm. Courtesy: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., Gift of the Historical Society of Forest Park 

While many of her white contemporaries were also abolitionists and sculpted black and indigenous subjects, Lewis did so in ways that defied racial stereotypes. Of particular note is her series based upon Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ (1855) and her mournful and sympathetic depiction of Hagar (1875). In the former sculptures, Lewis represented moments in the narrative of the Onondaga and Mohawk warrior Hiawatha and his ill-fated love for the tragic (fictional) maiden Minnehaha. Lewis’s approach was in stark contrast to that of her white male contemporaries – such as Erastus Dow Palmer’s The White Captive (1858–59) and Indian Girl, or The Dawn of Christianity (1855–56) and Hiram Powers’s The Last of the Tribes (1876–77) – who explored themes of indigenous violence, ‘civilization’ and Manifest Destiny. Meanwhile, Lewis’s choice to imagine the prayerful Egyptian Hagar alone and desperate, cast out from Abraham and Sarah’s home after the usefulness of her womb had been exploited, would have resonated powerfully with black Americans and abolitionists as a sympathetic rendering of an African enslaved woman. But her crowning success was Death of Cleopatra (1876), the African queen who, by the 19th century, had come to symbolize the Black Diaspora.6 Displayed at the 1876 ‘Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition’,Lewis’s composition and narrative choice surpassed those of her peers, such as Story, who had depicted Cleopatra contemplating suicide. In the aftermath of the Civil War (1861–65), newly freed African Americans hoped to be embraced fully as citizens of their nation. Instead, various branches of the US government strategically imposed laws and codes that restricted political access as well as physical and social mobility, while white communities and organizations terrorized and lynched black people with impunity. In the midst of the violent failure of postwar ‘Reconstruction’, Lewis’s Cleopatra was shockingly and graphically dead, the audience made to witness the slackening body of a fresh corpse on the throne. Her groundbreaking and realistic rendering of death – captured in the inclined head and the lifeless left arm draped dramatically over the side of the throne – prophesied the stylistic shift towards Modernism, the rise of which in Paris would soon sound the death knell for the stoic Neoclassical style and a shift away from Rome.

As Neoclassicism declined, most of Lewis’s white peers returned home to the US. Having completed several transatlantic voyages to exhibit sculptures, however, the thought of returning to a nation where the recent gains of emancipation were being openly challenged by the state and white citizens alike must have seemed incomprehensible to Lewis. Her veritable disappearance in this period was a product not only of the fading popularity of Neoclassicism, but also of her lack of a contemporaneous archivist and biographer, unlike her peers Cushman, Hosmer and Story. It is unclear precisely when Lewis moved to London, but it is there that she died on 17 September 1907 and was buried in plot 350C in St Mary’s Catholic Cemetery in Kensal Green. Lewis’s renaissance is justified not only by her obvious artistic talent and achievements, but by her much-deserved rise in a racist (art)world in which all of the odds were stacked against her. As the first black American and the first indigenous person, of either sex, to achieve professional status and international acclaim as a sculptor, Lewis was no doubt a beacon for many of the artists of colour who followed in her footsteps. Since her inclusion in publications such as Lynda Roscoe Hartigan’s Sharing Traditions: Five Black Artists in Nineteenth-Century America (1985) and Whitney Chadwick’s Women, Art and Society (1990), there has been a steady increase in scholarly attention and Lewis’s sculptures are now part of prized art collections including the Baltimore Museum of Art, The Detroit Institute of Arts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

Published in Frieze Masters, issue 7, 2018, with the title ‘Trail Blazer’.

1  Charmaine A. Nelson, ‘The Black Queen in the White Body: Edmonia Lewis and the Dead Queen’, The Color of Stone: Sculpting the Black Female Subject in Nineteenth-Century America, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2007, p. 174
2  Charmaine A. Nelson, ‘Dismembering the Flock: Difference and the “Lady-Artists”’, The Color of Stone: Sculpting the Black Female Subject in Nineteenth-Century America, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2007, p. 9
3  Nelson, ‘Dismembering the Flock’, Op. cit. p. 10
4  Nelson, ‘Dismembering the Flock’, Op. cit. pp. 20, 22
5  Thomas A. Foster, ‘The Sexual Abuse of Black Men under American Slavery’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, 20/3 (September 2011), pp. 445–64
6  Nelson, ‘The Black Queen in the White Body’, Op. cit.  p. 159

Main image: Mary Edmonia Lewis, Night (Two Sleeping Children) (detail), 1870, marble, 61 x 50 x 38 cm. Courtesy: Baltimore Museum of Art

Dr. Charmaine A. Nelson is a professor of art history at McGill University, Montreal, Canada.