Hagar and Forever Free – two of Edmonia’s works
Edmonia Lewis – a black, Catholic, American sculptor – cut an unusual figure in nineteenth century Rome. Joanna Moorhead seeks to unravel the mystery of this remarkable woman. Article taken from The Tablet 4th July 2020.
Not far from The Tablet’s office in west London, in a Catholic cemetery containing the remains of distinguished figures including Cardinals Wiseman and Manning, writer Max Pemberton and entertainer Danny La Rue, is a grave that until recently was unmarked and known only as plot C350.
Today it has a shiny headstone, and the legacy of the individual whose remains lie beneath is attracting belated but much-deserved accolades from the art world. A distinguished sculptor, who rose from modest roots in New York to become a celebrated figure in Rome, what’s most remarkable of all is that this artist was also female, and black.
Her name was Edmonia Lewis, and as the headstone, erected in 2017 in St Mary’s Cemetery, Kensal Green, reveals, she was born in 1844 and died in 1907. The truth is that even if she was a contemporary artist, the story of her struggle, her indomitable spirit and her success would be extraordinary – because to this day, as the Black Lives Matter protests have made abundantly clear, the world is ranged against people like her.
“Women artists, artists of colour, face the same obstacles today that Edmonia faced,” says her biographer, Albert Henderson, on the phone from Connecticut. “But her talent was her capital. She was an incredibly skilled artist, and she was also determined, single-minded, and unstoppable.” The fact that one of her focuses as an artist was the abolition of slavery only underlines her relevance and resonance in the present moment.
Lewis’ attributes meant she found recognition in her lifetime, especially in Rome where she worked out of a studio off the Piazza Barberini She must have cut an unlikely figure in the city, at a time when it was dominated by white artists. In fact, says Henderson, it was the patronage of several white British Catholics, who encountered her in Rome, that helped launch her success. “I think they related because of their recusant history. They knew what it was like to be a second-class citizen,” he says. Their influence was presumably behind a short news report, which appeared in The Tablet of 10 March 1866, that noted: “Miss Edmonia Lewis, a lady of colour, has taken a studio in Rome, and works as a sculptress.”
Much of Lewis’ story is sadly lost in time – and much of her work, even more unfortunately, is physically lost. The current focus on Black Lives Matter, though, is helping to turn the tide, and Lewis is one of many unsung inspirational figures profiled in the Black History and Culture strand on the Google Arts & Culture platform.
She was born to a mother who was of Chippewa Indian heritage and an African American father, but both her parents died when she was a young child and she went to live with her mother’s family in their tribe. Those years were formative for her art, and perhaps she was also propelled by the Indian name by which she was now known, “Wildfire”. When she was 12, her brother, Sunrise, went to California to become a gold miner, and sent back money to pay for her education in Ohio.
Schooling was to be the making of Lewis, but it also very nearly unseated her: in a move that was almost certainly racially motivated, she was accused of trying to poison her white roommates. She was eventually acquitted, but not before she had been beaten by white vigilantes.
She moved to Boston to study sculpture, and among her first works were busts of abolitionists; it was the sale of one of these, of Robert Gould Shaw, that gave her the funds to buy a one-way ticket on a ship to Europe. She travelled around for a while before settling in Rome, as reported in The Table, having gained the support of established sculptors such as Hiram Powers. Rome was a fashionable place to be a sculptor at the time; as well as its history of sculpting in antiquity, fine white marble was available there, and the skills of Italian stone-cutters.
Being away from the US didn’t diminish Lewis’ interest in her African American and Native American heritage; if anything, it seems to have given her the space to focus on it more. One of her best-known works, now in the Howard University Gallery of Art in Washington, is Forever Free, depicting a man and woman emerging from slavery, shackles held aloft. Another piece, Old Arrow Maker, shows a Native American father instructing his young daughter.
Her relationship with Catholicism, like much in her life, is shrouded in mystery. According to Henderson, she used to say that “the black robes taught us to say our prayers”, which he believes is a reference to the Jesuit missionaries who worked in New York State when she was growing up there. She seems to have been baptised as an adult, although precisely when and where is unclear. “We’ve been to the Vatican archives to see if it happened in Rome, but there’s no record of it there”, says Henderson. More tangible evidence of her faith perhaps is evinced in her biblical works: one of her masterpieces is a statue of Hagar, the Egyptian maidservant from the Book of Genesis who became the world’s first surrogate mother when she gave birth to Abraham’s first son, Ishmael. Hagar was later cast out after Sarah gave birth to her own son, Isaac; in the sculpture, she is a symbol of the courage of an oppressed female. She also created a Moses, copied after Michelangelo, and now lost Adoration of the Magi.
Most of Lewis’ adult life was lived out in Rome, but she made regular journeys back to the US, taking examples of her sculpture with her and encouraging galleries to show them. In 1872 she was in California for an exhibition of her work at the San Francisco Art Association; four years later came important recognition when she was included in the Philadelphia Centennial exhibition. Her piece, The Death of Cleopatra, was an unsentimental portrayal of the Egyptian queen in her final moment. One reviewer called it “the most remarkable piece of sculpture in the American section” of the show. The fact that it was then lost for a century, and discovered in 1988 hidden in a Chicago storage room, stands testament to how deeply art history, a discipline dominated by white men, has ignored the contribution of women, and women of colour in particular. The Death of Cleopatra now stands in the Smithsonian in Washington.
The later years of Lewis’ life are as intriguing as her early times. Exactly when she moved to London, or why, is unknown, but by the census of 1901 she was living in Bloomsbury. She seems to have moved again, to a house on Blythe Road in Hammersmith, and appears to have been a regular parishioner at Our Lady of Victories in Kensington. If she produced any work for that church, though, it was almost certainly lost when the premises were bombed during the Second World War. Today, the only places in Britain where you can see her work are the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, and at Mount Stuart in Scotland, whose owner, the third Marquess of Bute, was one of those long-time British supporters of her work. Lewis died in the Hammersmith infirmary and, says Henderson, she asked for her death notice to be published in The Tablet. “A spinster and sculptor” was how she wanted to be remembered; more than 100 years on, that ambition seems finally to be being realised.
The Indomitable Spirit of Edmonia Lewis by Harry Henderson and Albert Henderson is available for download on Kindle. For further information, see www.edmonialewis.com