Edmonia Lewis began her career as a sculptor under the tutelage of Edward Brackett “who gave her a cast of a foot and some clay and told her to try her hand at modeling,” effectively beginning her career as a sculpture professionally. Boston not only allowed a place to sculpt, but also a safe space among people who were eager for Native American and African Americans to succeed in various fields. She obtained patrons within the abolitionist community, notably Lydia Maria Child, who were able to rewrite her history to avoid the Oberlin College debacle. Lewis was well aware of the difference between false praise and support and in an interview stated, “Some praise me because I am a colored girl, and I don’t want that kind of praise. I had rather you point out my defects, for that will teach me something.”
Some praise me because I am a colored girl, and I don’t want that kind of praise. I had rather you point out my defects, for that will teach me something." -Edmonia Lewis
Though Lewis had support and praise within the abolitionist community, she tended to strike the wrong chord for some, particularly with Child, as her behavior was not always exactly as Child would have liked. Child disagreed with the way she approached commissions and her business method, and was likely offended by Lewis’s rejection of how Child thought she should do business. The disagreement led to Child interfering with a business dealing Lewis had with Samuel Sewall regarding a payment she never received. Though it seems she was eventually paid, there is evidence that even within the abolitionist community there were issues with Edmonia Lewis’s race.
In a letter Child wrote to Sarah Blake Sturgis Shaw she called Lewis “younger than young” meaning young as in too much of a hurry to set up a studio to get her career started and “young” from a cultural standpoint of being from “young people- Chippewas and negros.” Child, like many abolitionists, focused on race; Lewis’s race may be a reason for the treatment she received by patrons compared to other artists, often possibly receiving praise for her work on the basis for her being a “colored girl”. For Child publicly Lewis was a “representative Negro,” as seen in private letters Child’s patronage is more conflicted. Publicly writing positively of Lewis’s work in order to legitimize Child’s political stance as an abolitionist. If Child could not write of Lewis positively she would remain silent publicly, but would write privately discussing her distaste in Lewis’s choice of sculpture. For example in a letter to Sarah Blake Sturgis Shaw, Child writes she felt it was wrong to “encourage a girl, merely because she is colored.” This conflicted relationship led to ties between Lewis and Child to be severed.
Praised in the New York Mirror for understanding the formula for fame, Lewis found some acclaim through sculpting of illustrious men such as John Brown and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Lewis’s career, full of good omens, did not mirror her relationship with Child. Although her career in Boston was doing well Edmonia Lewis sold plaster casts of her Bust of Robert Gould Shaw (1867-68) (Figure 1) raising enough money for a ticket to Italy and making her way to Rome.
Rome was a perfect place for Edmonia Lewis, for it gave her a freedom from the racism back in the United States; stating in an interview that she 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 [her] color.” In Rome black and white held different meanings than in the United States and there Lewis was able to pursue her art more freely. Residing in Rome did not diminish the support she had in the abolitionist community back in Boston, though she was able to eventually obtain patronage from those within the Catholic community in Rome, as well as buyers such as Marquis of Bute, who she carved a Madonna for. It was in Rome where her career truly took off; she began studying under Harriet Hosmer, opened her own studio, and delved into the expatriate female artist community there.
In Rome Edmonia Lewis’s continued her career as a sculpture. She shifted her subject matter to historical, literary, and biblical topics; creating ideal sculptures within the context of American Neo-classicism style. Even within the way she portrayed the figures race “follows the idealized western European models.” Her works Forever Free (Figure 2), The Death of Cleopatra (Figure 3), and The Wooing of Hiawatha (Figure 4) are examples of her portrayal of both the ideal sculptures within the neo-classical style as her modeling her figures on the ideal western form.
1. Patricia Cleveland-Peck. “CASTING THE FIRST STONE.” History Today 57, no. 10 (October 2007): 17.
2. “Interview with Lydia Maria Child.” Liberator, February 19, 1864.
3. Kristen Pai Buick. Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History’s Black and Indian Subject (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010): 16.
4. Ibid. 14-15.
5. Kristen Pai Buick. Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History’s Black and Indian Subject (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010): 10.
6. Ibid. 13.
7. Ibid. 14.
8. “Seeking Equality Abroad.: Why Miss Edmonia Lewis, The Colored Sculptor, Returns to Rome--Her Early Life and Struggles.” New York Times. December 29, 1878. http://search.proquest.com/docview/93646081?accountid=14541.
9. Patricia Cleveland-Peck. “CASTING THE FIRST STONE.” History Today 57, no. 10 (October 2007): 18.
10. Kristen Pai Buick. Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History’s Black and Indian Subject (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010): 50.
11. Kristen Pai Buick. “The Ideal Works of Edmonia Lewis: Invoking and Inverting Autobiography.” American Art 9, no. 2 (Summer 1995): 5.