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The Forgotten Womxn in Art History - Edmonia Lewis

Updated: Oct 9, 2020

For article 3 of Forgotten Women of Art History, we remain in Rome - the home to Sofonisba and Artemisia - but jump forward in time. I introduce you to Edmonia Lewis, born around 1844, the first African-American female artist to conquer the art world.  

Edmonia’s beginnings were difficult to say the least, her mother was a Chippewa India, and her father, African-American. Edmonia - or Wildfire, which was her native Chippewaen name - was left isolated on the fringes of two distinct minorities who refused to accept her. At only five years old Edmonia’s life worsened as she became an orphan. A life-changing event for even the most protected of children. Edmonia remained in the care of her mother’s nomadic tribe until she became a young woman, then fled the Northern Midwest for Oberlin College, Ohio. 

In 1859, Edmonia was accepted to Oberlin Fine Arts, where she shed her wildfire roots and transformed into Mary Edmonia Lewis. For mid-19th century America, Oberlin was way ahead of its time, it accepted students from a variety of backgrounds; race nor sex appeared to be a problem for these progressive classrooms. Unfortunately, what seemed too good to be true, was exactly that. The promise of acceptance that Oberlin offered to students like Edmonia was falsified; after only a few months of studying at Oberlin, the young artist was accused of attempting to poison her flatmates. The claims, unsurprisingly, turned out to be phoney and the charges were dropped, but only after Edmonia had to endure a highly publicised and humiliating trial. The whispers of Artemisia Gentileschi’s rape trail ring oh-so-familiarly only this trial was about a Black woman and was, therefore, undoubtedly race related. Resulting in beatings from white vigilantes, this innocent young woman was, for want of a better word, terrorised. Edmonia, no matter how much she wanted to succeed to Oberlin, was fiercely denied a chance to develop as an artist. The “forward-thinking” environment of Oberlin was not all it claimed to be. To make matters worse, the college board - most likely predominately white - decided to deny graduation from Edmonia, as not long after her trial, another accusation was burdened upon the young artist; the stealing of art supplies. These series of events are not coincidental, nor are they innocent, they are racially and abusively charged. We must remind ourselves, the slave trade was only abolished in 1864, so whilst colleges like Oberlin may have attempted to create a desegregated environment, the overarching facist ideology of America, and most of its population, may have catalysed the painful experiences we see students like Edmonia endure. How different this artist’s experience at Oberlin College would have been if she were a white, privileged student.

Suffering from a loss of hope and prospect, Edmonia’s brother encouraged her, in tow with financial support, to move to Boston. Edmonia’s life changed drastically upon her arrival, where she met Edward Brackett; a self-taught sculptor, author and conservationist. Brackett and Edmonia met out of divine intervention. The young artist became Brackett’s student and her sculptural capabilities promptly flourished under his instruction. The bad taste of Oberlin College soon dissolved, if anything, her unfair experiences pushed her further towards success. Edmonia was determined to be a sculptor, despite all obstacles. With a new-found confidence, Edmonia began to produce sculptural portraits of anti-slavery campaigners such as John Brown and Colonel Robert Goud Shaw - a Boston hero who celebrated all-African-American 54th Regiment of the Civil War. Edmonia’s work was popular and became, rather speedily, sought after. The prosperous sales of her portrait busts financed her first trip to Europe in 1865. From an isolated orphan to a self-sufficient artist, I cannot help but feel proud of Edmonia, her circumstances did not define her, she battled forward despite a difficulty that is very seldom presented to white people, if it is at all.

From Boston to Europe, Edmonia chose to settle in Rome - a smart choice for any budding artist - where she rented a studio near the Piazza Barberini. Rome has always been the epicentre of art; the ruling city of the arts during the mid-19th century. Whilst engulfing the Roman way of life, Edmonia became acquainted with numerous white American creatives in Rome, like actress Charlotte Cushman and sculptor Harriet Hosmer. Italy was popular for all artists, but especially sculptors, because of the availability of fine white marble and Italian stone carvers who could assist and render for an artist. But Edmonia was distinct among her generation of sculptors, she rarely employed help and almost all of her work was completed by her own artistic hand.

The events at Oberlin likely made Edmonia fearful and cautious; it was better to go slowly, and go alone, than to chance being subject to fraud or inauthenticity. Unique, strong, and determined, the background that held the young artist back, later on propelled and distinguished her from other sculptors. As her practice grew, the artist’s subjects began to incorporate African-American and Native American figures and stories. These subjects, with their representation through sculpture, were original and refreshing, differing from the repeated - ivory in aesthetic and context - neoclassical sculptures of the era. Edmonia had the confidence to represent not only her blackness, but others; her sculpture Hagar, 1875, depicts the enslaved Egyptian woman, Hagar, who Biblically became associated with Black women and slavery through stories. Although the work was made in Europe, there is a strong attachment to American social and political concerns, as Hagar explores slavery and therefore, the abolition of African culture. There is an overwhelming sense of bravery and courage in the way Edmonia works. We must Her subject matters are fiercely personal to Edmonia, metaphorically and literally, as a Black female artist. Her work is bold and defiant, it demands respect and acknowledgment. 

Being a female artist can be exhausting and thorny but being a Back female artist transcends this on many levels. Edmonia, living in America, had added oppression and hardship. Her ability to make a living from her sculptures, and growing to relative artistic fame in one of the most renowned cities in the world, Rome, was exceptional. Time and time again we see the world attempt to dampen female artists, but skill, real and genuine skill, with fire and determination, is impossible to extinguish. Mary Edmonia Lewis was the first sculpture of African-American and Native American descent to achieve international recognition. And rightly so.

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