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Edmonia Lewis: A bit about her life and a bit about her drawings (or lack thereof)

Main Image: Edmonia Lewis, 'The Muse Urania' | Image caption: Oberlin College Archives

Today, I would like to depart from the sixteenth century (although remain in Italy. Let’s not get too wild), to look at the life and graphic work of the nineteenth-century artist, Edmonia Lewis.

Known as an accomplished Neoclassical sculptor, who spent the majority of her life in Rome, Lewis’ biography has been widely written about by scholars who have dedicated their life to hers. As a result, I won’t attempt to summarise or elucidate on her oeuvre too much, save a brief introduction. Instead, I would like to look at her drawing – since I could find only one – and use it as a gateway into the output of this accomplished woman.

Lewis was born in around 1844, a free woman, to an Afro-Haitian father and a mother who was of  Mississauga Ojibwe and of African American descent. She was believed to have been raised by her mother’s Ojibwa sisters after being orphaned at a young age (Lewis was an accomplished self-promoter in later life, and was known to have embellished certain parts of her upbringing). In 1859, funded by her brother, she attended Oberlin College. Her time at the institution, however, ended prematurely, and in disrepute as well as near death, after she was accused by her white roommates of attempted poisoning. Although acquitted, she suffered a highly publicised trial, and severe beatings by white vigilantes. Further accusations of art supply theft prevented her from being allowed to graduate.

Lewis left Oberlin in 1863 for Boston, where she met the sculptor Edward Brackett, and continued her schooling in the medium. Despite incomplete training, she began to make medallion portrait busts of famous abolitionists, the success of which would finance her trip to Europe in 1865. She travelled first to London, Paris and Florence, ultimately deciding to settle in Rome.

Figure 1: Edmonia Lewis, Cleopatra | Image credit: Wikipedia

There is much information on her time in Rome, where she spent a large part of her life. But rather than harping on about this period, I will briefly address the basic facts, and list a short bibliography at the bottom for further research: In Rome, she moved into a studio which had once belonged to Antonio Canova. There she fully embraced the Neoclassical style, chiselling marbled copies of the city’s masterpieces, portraits of newly freed African Americans, busts of Native Americans, and Catholic subjects. Her works garnered much attention, resulting, in part, from the popularity of specifically American themes among the country’s collectors, her racial background, as well as the exception quality of her art. As a result, Lewis achieved great fame, which was both praised and derided in the press, and about which she expressed mixed feelings. In 1878, she told The New York Times:

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 colour. The land of liberty had no room for a coloured sculptor.

Much of Lewis’ work has been destroyed, and until recently, that which did survive was often ignored. In 1967, her sculptural commemoration of the Emancipation Proclamation, Forever Free, caught the eye of James Porter. Who tried to convince the Howard University Art Gallery of its importance. The gallery’s indifference to African-American art history resulted in Porter’s acquisition of the work from his own funds, and subsequent donation (you’d think he’d have tried to find a better art gallery to donate it to). In the 1980s, Marilyn Richardson, Lewis’ biographer, discovered the artist’s masterpiece, Cleopatra, now in the Smithsonian, covered in white and purple house paint, and left in a mall outside in Chicago (Fig. 1). In recent years Lewis’ works have received their due attention, and more are populating the major institutions of the US.

(I didn’t really know where to put this bit of information, but, also, Lewis died in London on 17 September in 1907 from Bright’s disease).

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During Lewis’s time at Oberlin, she received drawing instruction from Georgianna Wyett. She was said to have particularly excelled in the field. I have only been able to find one work on paper by her, which was produced during these early years of training. The sheet is a copy of Urania, the Greek muse of astronomy (Main image). It is a finished piece, signed, and made for Lewis’s classmate, Clara Steele Norton, as a wedding gift in 1862. According to Norton’s family, the marriage had been hastily planned, as the groom, a Civil War soldier, was on short leave. Lewis was said to have completed the drawing the night before the ceremony, by candlelight, which caused the stains from the wax drips still found on the paper.

According to John Crawford (University of Delaware), the subject is a copy after an ancient sculpture, which was possibly of the muse, Urania, unearthed in Tivoli during the reign of Pope Pius VI. It is now in the Vatican Museums. The sphere in the muse’s hand is intended to be the universe, the tool, a stylus and the objects on her head, feathers. The original sculpture was heavily restored, and although the head is ancient, it does not belong with the statue. The arms were also missing when it was found.

Figure 2: Plaster Cast after The Muse Urania in the Vatican Museums | Image credit: Cornell Cast Collection

I have tried to get an image of the original statue from the Vatican website. The only digitised statue of Urania, however, seems to be a standing sculpture, one that had been much copied in the Renaissance and Baroque. The Cornell Cast collection seems to have a copy (Fig. 2). And the catalogue note confirms the original to be somewhere in the Vatican.  It is likely that a similar copy, or a drawing after such a work, would have been the source for Lewis’s sheet.

Figure 3: Hendrik Goltzius, The Muse Urania | Image credit: The Morgan Library

Out of curiosity, I tried to uncover further examples, in particular from the early modern period, of prints or drawings of this seated Urania. The closest I could find, although not identical, is an engraving by Goltzius, now in the Morgan Library, from his series of muses (Fig. 3). According to Walter Straus, the Dutch artist’s source is the same as that of Lewis’s.

Although apparently executed in haste, Lewis’s one work on paper, done so early in life, is testament to her skills as a draftsman (draftswoman?), and suggestive of the beauty of later examples. She must have completed numerous drawings during her time at Oberlin, and throughout her life as a professional sculptor. What happened to these, I have no idea. With some luck, there are still a few knocking around, as yet, unidentified, which will come to light eventually.

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This week the intention had been to write about Salvator Rosa and the mystery of the abducted porn dolls.  I had plugged out of the news cycle for a while, and limited most conversations with friends and family. The aim had been to launder my information infested brain. The world was not inclined to wait with me. Although I had heard vague murmurs of riots, it all seemed far away. Namaste, mindfulness, and cheesecake had battled coffee curiosity. And won. It turned out to be a stupid week to log off.

Upon re-entry, my own little life’s exhausting obsessions with COVID -19 and the Venetian Renaissance sharply abated, letting in the realities of this other, more urgent world. I found twitter drowning in news of falsehoods, slaughter, tear gas. The name Amy Copper echoed Carolyn Bryant Donham, with accidentally less horrific consequences. About George Floyd it is near impossible to write. It would strip the circumstances of his murder from their full, unadulterated gruesomeness.   

Trevor Noah explains the recent events of racial hatred and proud retaliation as close to dignified as possible, for a moment casting aside humour for empathy and righteous anger. If you have yet to see his monologue, you should.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Shorter articles

‘Edmonia Lewis: American Sculptor’, Encyclopaedia Britannica

K. Chernick, ‘The Unlikely Success of Edmonia Lewis, a Black Sculptor in 19th-Century America (2018)

P. Green, ‘Overlooked No More: Edmonia Lewis, Sculptor of Worldwide Acclaim’, The New York Times (2018)

R. A. Perry, ‘Catalogue Entry: Edmonia Lewis’, Smithsonian Museum Website

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Academic articles and publications

K. P. Buick, ‘The Ideal Works of Edmonia Lewis: Invoking and Inverting Autobiography’, American Art 9/2 (1995), pp. 4-19

S. W. Gold, ‘The Death of Cleopatra / The Birth of Freedom: Edmonia Lewis at the New World’s Fair’, Biography 35/2 (2012), pp.318-341

C. A. Nelson, ‘Sculpting the Black Female Subject in Nineteenth-Century America’, chapter from The Colour of Stone (Minnesota, 2007)

K. Pai Buick, Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History’s Black and Indian Subject (Durham, 2010)

M. Richardson, ‘Edmonia Lewis at Mcgrawville: The Early Education of a Nineteenth-Century Black Woman Artist’, Nineteenth-Century Contexts 22 (2000), pp.395-56

—–‘Edmonia Lewis’s The Death of Cleopatra: Myth and Identity’, International Review of African American Art 12/2 (1995), pp.36-52

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A Western Art History blog by someone who sometimes gets paid  to read and write about Western Art History. Mostly Old Masters. Mostly Italian. Hopefully accurate.

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