Mary Edmonia Lewis

The Wooing of Hiawatha

Figure 1.The Wooing of Hiawatha, 1866. Marble 24x15x 15 inches. Walter O. Evans Collection.

This avoidance of race is also seen in the sculpture The Wooing of Hiawatha (1866) (Figure 1), where the male figure has a hooked nose and high cheekbones, commonly associated with Indians, while the female figure, again kneeling at the male’s side, is given features more similar to white women. According to Buick, Native American women were often depicted with Greek ideals and African-American women were rarely depicted at all.[6] All of this in line with the idea of the Cult of True Womanhood, a major theme during the nineteenth century ascribing the proper place of women within society and the home. The idea of the Cult of True Womanhood that was pervasive throughout nineteenth century society is a possible influence in many of Lewis’s sculptures, Hagar in the Wilderness (1875) (Figure 2), The Wooing of Hiawatha, and Forever Free.

In Forever Free the inability to discern the female figure as a black woman, combined with the figures relationship to one another, it is easy to see the sculpture emphasizing the new life that newly freed slaves would have as well as the role within the family they are creating in order to be completely free from the white male. It is also seen that the depiction of the female figure as white relates to a cultural ideal that black was bad, and to be a good woman in society one must be white. In order to portray a good, submissive, and pure woman in the sculpture Forever Free to the American viewers, Edmonia Lewis had to depict a figure lacking racial identity.

Hagar in the Wilderness, 1875. Marble.

Though many tend to read the female figure as a white woman, Hugh Honour wrote in 1989 that “the woman’s features and flowing hair could…be those of an American Indian, and one may wonder whether this figure did not have an element of self-portraiture, or a reminiscence of Lewis’s mother.”[7] For Honour the major focus of reading the female figure in Lewis’s sculpture surrounds her biography, and her connection to African American and Native American women as herself. While Honour writes that she is connecting herself to the art by creating a female type that is closer to a Native American depiction. While a valid form of interpretation, connecting Lewis’s identity with her female figures limits the ability to read the sculptures within a cultural context.

Kristen Buick believes Lewis’s lack of race specificity distances the artist from her work. In Buicks article “The Ideal Works of Edmonia Lewis: Invoking and Inverting Autobiography” claims that Lewis’s decision to neutralize her women and racializing her men was not only to create sympathetic figures within the dominant culture, but also a result of how she wanted herself perceived as both an artist and person. Claiming that through the racial neutralization of her female figures she was preventing viewers from seeing her within the women in her sculptures, if her identity was separated from the sculpture they could be read as the subject and her as the narrator.[8] By whitening her female figures Lewis was able to maintain her power as an artist by creating distance between her figures and herself.[9] The avoiding or adjusting of the racial identities in her female figures as a way to distance or connect herself to the figure is second possibility to why her African American female figure in Forever Free does not hold the features of a black woman. Maintaining her authority over her voice as an artist was an aspect that was often difficult for black woman entering the public sphere during the nineteenth century, by separating her identity from her work, Lewis may have believed that she would be able to create a power that may be separate from the freedom given to her by the abolitionist patrons.


References:

1. Kristen Pai Buick. “The Ideal Works of Edmonia Lewis: Invoking and Inverting Autobiography.” American Art 9, no. 2 (Summer 1995): 12.

2. Buick, Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History’s Black and Indian Subject. 33.

3. Buick, “The Ideal Works of Edmonia Lewis: Invoking and Inverting Autobiography.” 14.

4. Ibid., 15.

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