Edmonia Lewis – Art with Power, Honesty, and Business Savvy

History Smiths

Artist, business owner, entrepreneur, marketing genius, activist, trail blazer — if you’ve never heard of Edmonia Lewis, you won’t soon forget her!

Her achievements

• First African American to earn an international reputation as a sculptor

• First Native American and first African American female sculptor

• Used her art to influence the public’s attitudes toward slavery and the plight of Native Americans

• Owned her own successful studios in Boston and Rome in spite of 19th century racism and sexism

• Did her own carving to avoid being accused of fraud

• 2002: She is listed in 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia

Her story
As EdmoniaLewis.com writes about Lewis, “She boldly breached barriers of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and class around the time of the Civil War and Reconstruction, an era when prejudices against these minorities were particularly virulent … Her success spurred generations of artists and expanded the horizons of black feminists as a pioneer of racial identity.”

That’s pretty impressive! So, who was this groundbreaking artist?

Mary Edmonia Lewis was born about 1845, presumably in upstate New York (her birth records have never been found). Her father was Haitian; her mother, who was of Ojibwe (or Chippewa) and African American descent, was known as an artist of traditional crafts. According to Lewis, her Native American name was “Wild Fire.” Sadly, both of her parents died when she was about nine, and she and her older brother, Samuel, went to live with their mother’s sisters selling baskets and other Native American crafts to tourists.

Edmonia Lewis began studying art at Oberlin College in Ohio, which was one of the first colleges in the United States to admit women and people of different ethnicities. As she once said about choosing to become an artist, “Well, it was a strange selection for a poor girl to make, wasn’t it? I suppose it was in me … I became almost crazy to make something like the things which fascinated me.” 

Lewis was studying at Oberlin when the Civil War broke out. There, a racist and violent incident took place when she was accused of poisoning two white female students who had become severely ill during an outing. She was severely beaten, accused of the crime, and made to stand trial. Luckily, she was found innocent thanks, in part, to the efforts of John Mercer Langston, the only practicing African American lawyer in Oberlin.

Lewis moved to Boston in 1862 to study with the great sculptor Edward August Brackett. She carried with her letters of introduction to some of the leading abolitionists of the day, black and white, including William Lloyd Garrison. According to the historian and Edmonia Lewis scholar Marilyn Richardson, “She was soon advertising portrait busts and terra-cotta medallions of champions of the antislavery cause, including Senator Charles Sumner, Maria Weston Chapman, the martyred John Brown, and the black Sergeant William H. Carney, a hero of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment in the 1863 Civil War battle at Fort Wagner.” Bostonians wanted to collect these beautifully executed abolitionist works carved by an African American woman.

Lewis’s financial success from her depictions of Robert Gould Shaw, the white commanding officer of the 54th Regiment (the country’s first regiment of African American men), helped finance her first trip to Italy — at age 21 — where she settled in 1866. From now on, Lewis would be a true international artist, traveling regularly between Rome, Boston, and other American cities where she exhibited her work. In Rome, where Lewis had more freedom as a woman and African American artist, she was surrounded by other Boston expatriate artists including Charlotte Cushman, Louisa Lander, Anne Whitney, Harriet Hosmer, Hiram Power, and William Wetmore Story.

As Lewis herself explained: “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.” In Italy Lewis found a “real republic,” where people “left their race prejudices at home.” She stayed there for the rest of her life,” writes Dr. Patrick McNamara of the American Catholic University. In Rome, Lewis practiced Catholicism, and was possibly raised in that church, differentiating her from her fellow Protestant expatriates.

Richardson writes, “Lewis’s work was much in demand. Her studio, listed in the best guidebooks, was a fashionable stop for travelers on the mid-nineteenth-century version of the Grand Tour. Some visitors commissioned portrait busts of themselves or family members. Others ordered her biblical, literary, historical, or idealized classical figures to adorn their mantels and front parlors.” Richardson also points out that as an African American woman whose talent could be questioned if she hired assistants, she did all of her own carving.

Lewis’s depictions of Native Americans “were an immediate success,” Richardson writes, due to the international popularity of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Song of Hiawatha. Richardson points out that collectors were eager to have a copy of Lewis’s figures inspired by his poems because they had been carved by someone of Ojibway descent. The Smithsonian Institution wrote about her sculpture, “Her works were infused with both personal relevance and timely human rights issues …  Her sculptures were displayed from Boston to Chicago to San Francisco as well as in her studio in Rome.”

In 1876, Lewis showed her most successful work The Death of Cleopatra at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, which realistically portrayed a strong, courageous queen in the moments before her death. The American statesman J.S. Ingraham described the two-ton marble statue as “the most remarkable piece of sculpture in the American section” of the Exposition.” It caused a sensation. The following year, President Ulysses S. Grant asked her to sculpt his portrait, which she did.

Unfortunately, at the same time, public taste in art was shifting to Paris and Lewis’s neoclassic style declined in popularity. What happened to her next is unclear. The last years of her life remain shrouded in mystery. It was thought that she died in Rome, or in California. Instead, in 2010, Marilyn Richardson was able to document her death in the Hammersmith area of London in 1907. One of these days, Richardson may very well find her birthplace as well!

Today, Edmonia Lewis’s works are owned by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Harvard University, Howard University, Oberlin College, and several other American museums, libraries, and private collections. She continues to inspire female, African American, and Native American artists alike with her courage, her dedication, and her artistic excellence.

Edmonia Lewis’s most famous political sculptures include:

• Forever Free

• The Freed Woman and Her Child

• Colonel Robert Gould Shaw

• Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

• John Brown

• Charles Sumner

• Lincoln, Asleep and Awake

• Phillis Wheatley

• Marriage of Hiawatha

• Hiawatha

• Minnehaha

• The Old Arrowmaker and His Daughter

• The Death of Cleopatra

Lessons Learned for Life and for Business

• As I once heard the actress Cicely Tyson say in a talk about her own life, in the face of racism sometimes you need to “just stand,” meaning, be who you are and don’t flinch. If seems that there is nothing else you can do, “just stand.” That in itself is an act of courage.

• Despite the obstacles of gender, race, and the loss of parents at a young age, Edmonia Lewis knew what her gifts were, she honed them, and used them.

• Believe in yourself, even if others don’t.

• Follow your heart.

• Be careful whom you trust.

• Consider your environment (place and people). You won’t do your best work in a place where you don’t feel safe and respected.

• Never underestimate the power of art to change public opinion. Lewis sold hundreds of copies of her political sculptures. People were moved by them.

• What are people interested in? Without compromising your integrity, can you create Products that people will love and then duplicate them? Lewis made lots of money doing that!

• A shroud of mystery never hurts. Her background was never clear and she liked it that way. She fascinated people. What the heck? It probably helped sales!

• Learn how to work the media. Lewis often had herself photographed with her work to reinforce her cultural background and remind people that yes, African Americans and Native Americans could be great sculptors and artists.

• Self-promote!

Harrison Bennett, the President and CEO of History Smiths, is an expert on using history in new and innovative ways. She is a marketing, PR, event planning, and cultural tourism professional who also happens to be a respected historian (especially women’s history), author, and public speaker. Her companion website is called Women Make History.