Inventing Edmonia Lewis
Last week in this space we touched upon the dispiriting story of African American sculptor Augusta Savage, whose biography was shrouded in myth, whose renown exceeded her abilities, and whose career had been shaped at the outset, for better and worse, by racial discrimination. Born in Florida, her link to the Hudson River Valley began with her move to New York City in 1920 and to Saugerties in 1945.
This week we move on to an earlier and greater African American woman sculptor, Edmonia Lewis. By her own varying accounts, Lewis was born as “Wildfire” on July 4 or 14, in 1845, 1843, or 1842, in Greenbush, New York (just outside Cobleskill) to an African American father and a Native American mother. She was orphaned at age three or age nine and, as Mary Edmonia Lewis, enrolled at Oberlin College in Ohio in 1859 thanks to a gold-rush fortune mysteriously earned by a mysterious brother. It was at Oberlin, an underground-railroad destination and a beacon of racial tolerance, that she felt the sting of racism in a singularly brutal way that shaped her, her career, and, it may be argued, the future of African American art.
When Lewis died in obscurity in Italy — where she had lived for the better part of half a century — sometime after 1910 (we don’t know when, exactly) her fame had long since flown and there was no one at hand to mourn her. “Mannish,” she had lived alone in her last years. In the past decade, however, her sculptures have emerged from museum basements, been cataloged and exhibited, and some that had been in private hands have recently sold for significant sums at auction. Her reputation as an artist stands higher today than at any time since 1876, when her massive Cleopatra was the sensation of the Centennial Exhibition. You’ll have to wait till next week for the details of Cleopatra’s passage from high-class exhibits in Philadelphia and Chicago to a saloon display to a graveyard marker for a racehorse to a golf course ornament to a salvage yard derelict and, in 1996, to an exhibit at the Smithsonian.
But let’s not race ahead of ourselves in telling the story of Edmonia Lewis, whose first act as an artist appears to have been her own invention. Like others, I failed in my attempts to find her or her family in 1850 census data in Rensselaer County or anywhere else, as Mary or Edmonia or Wildfire. Every later clue led back to an account by Edmonia herself. Below, as reported in The Liberator of February 19, 1864, is an illuminating account of a first meeting between Edmonia and the abolitionist author Lydia Maria Child, at an Anti-Slavery Society meeting in Boston. Child wrote:
“I told her I judged by her complexion that there might be some of what is called white blood in her veins. She replied; ‘No, I have not a single drop of what is called white blood in my veins. My father was a full-blooded Negro and my mother was a full-blooded Chippewa.’ ‘But it is a long way from the Chippewa to sculpture,’ said I. ‘How came you to get upon that road?’ ‘I don’t know,’ she replied. ‘My mother was always inventing new patterns for moccasons [sic], and other embroidery; and perhaps the same thing is coming out in me in a more civilized form.’ ‘And have you lived with the Chippewas?’ ‘Yes. When my mother was dying she wanted me to promise that I would live three years with her people, and I did.’ ‘And what did you do while you were there?’ ‘I did as my mother’s people did. I made baskets and embroidered moccasons, and I went into the cities, with my mother’s people to sell them.’ [In an 1878 interview she said of this period in her life, “I sold moccasins and bead baskets and pin-cushions at Niagara Falls and Watkins-Glen...”] ‘And did you like that kind of life?” ‘Oh, yes; I like it a great deal better than your civilized life. There is nothing so beautiful as the tree forest. To catch a fish when you are hungry, cut the boughs of a tree, make a fire to roast it, and eat it in the open air, is the greatest of all luxuries. I would not stay a week pent up in cities, if it were not for my passion for Art.’”
Tripe of this sort was not debuted in Madonna’s prattle about the Kaballah after all. Lewis was no one’s dummy. Child was using her as Exhibit A for the cause, and so were others in William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist set. But she was using them too. By the end of 1864 she had exhibited at the Colored Soldiers’ Fair in Boston a bust of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the young white Boston Brahmin who died leading the all-black 54th Massachusetts Regiment in the assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina. Anna Quincy Waterston not only commissioned Lewis to create a sculpture of herself, she published a poem titled “Edmonia Lewis” in The Liberator of December 16, 1864, in which she wrote, “‘Tis fitting that a daughter of the race/ Whose chains are breaking should receive a gift/ So rare as genius....”
Only a year earlier she had been indigent, sitting on the steps of City Hall, according to the Christian Register, “to eat the dry crackers with which alone her empty purse allowed her to satisfy her hunger; but as she sat and thought of her dead brother, of her homeless state, something caught her eye, the hunger of the stomach ceased, but the hunger of the soul began. That quiet statue of the good old [Benjamin] Franklin had touched the electric spark.... For weeks she haunted that spot and the State House, where she could see Washington and Webster. She asked questions, and found that such things were first made in clay. She got a lump of hard mud, shaped her some sticks, and, her heart divided between art and the terrible struggle for freedom, which had just received the seal of Col. Shaw’s blood, she wrought out, from photographs and her own ideal, an admirable bust of him. This made the name of Edmonia Lewis known in Boston. The unknown waif on the steps of City Hall had, in a few short months, become an object of interest to a large circle of those most anxious about the great problem of the development of the colored race in their new position....”
Press agentry of this high hokum could scarcely be improved upon. But how had she come to have crackers and clay as her only companions? For this we go back to Oberlin, where as Mary E. Lewis she had completed two uneventful years when, in the recess between semesters of the 1861-62 academic year, all hell broke loose.
On January 27, 1862, two of Edmonia’s twelve white roommates at Reverend John Keep’s home set off on a sleigh ride with two gentleman friends, Oberlin students E.R. Pelton and Prentice Loomis. The young women, Maria Miles of Vermilion and Christina Ennes of Birmingham, had been teasing Edmonia earlier. Just before they set out, according to Oberlin professor Geoffrey Blodgett, Edmonia “invited her two friends to her room and offered them a drink of hot spiced wine she had prepared to fortify them against the cold.... Later medical testimony plainly indicated that one item in the mix was cantharides, the aphrodisiac popularly known as Spanish Fly.... A powder made from dried beetles native to Southern Europe, the drug was an effective irritant, whatever its power to promote sexual ambition. Applied externally, it reddened and blistered the skin; taken internally, it could prove highly toxic. Serious sickness, including inflammation of the kidneys, as well as stimulation of the genital organs could result from its use.”
In the course of their sleigh ride the girls became violently ill and their beaux sought medical attention. Examination and questioning prompted the doctors to declare the case one of poisoning, with a clear culprit, but the justice system of little, sleepy Oberlin was ill equipped to act. After a week without an arrest, locals took matters into their own hands: One evening Edmonia was seized, Blodgett wrote, “dragged to a nearby empty field, and brutally thrashed. It was hours before a search party, hunting the fields with lanterns in the night, found her lying in the cold, her clothing torn and her body badly beaten.”
Once Lewis had healed from her injuries, the case went before an inquest to determine whether there was sufficient evidence to go to trial. John Mercer Langston, an Oberlin graduate and the only practicing black attorney in Ohio in 1862, represented Lewis. Pointing out that the contents of the women’s stomachs had not been retained for analysis, he moved that the case be dismissed. The two judges agreed, and Lewis was freed.
Lewis is said not to have returned to Oberlin for the remainder of the 1862 academic year, but records indicate that she re-enrolled for the fall of 1863 but was not permitted to graduate. Although her studies had not concentrated especially in art, she found her way to Boston where the abolitionist Garrison introduced her to sculptor Edward Brackett, who became her first mentor. Following her whirlwind success in Boston in 1864, she taught briefly in post-Civil War Richmond, Virginia. By year end in 1865, with proceeds from plaster casts of the bust of Colonel Shaw, she was welcomed warmly into an American expatriate art colony in Rome.
Still, back in Ohio, not far from Oberlin College, the Lorain County News noted on April 4, 1866: “The papers are noting the advent in Rome of a young colored artist and sculptor—Miss Edmonia Lewis—who is creating something of a sensation in the Eternal City. Report hath it that she is none other than a Miss Mary E. Lewis, who had her brief notoriety here—and for other than artistical efforts—a few years since. If Mary E. is none other than Edmonia, she is indeed enjoying a checkered career.”
Next week we’ll look at that checkered career, across forty years, two continents, and a subsequent sea change of critical opinion.