DETAIL: Edmonia Lewis (American; 1844-1907). Hiawatha’s Marriage, 1868. Marble; 29.5″ x 13.125″ x 13.125″. Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama. Gift of Ida Bell Young Art Acquisitions. Public domain.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
The story of a female artist having to overcome cultural, societal and political odds to achieve commercial and critical success in a male-dominated art world is an all-too-common one. But there is nothing common about the life of Edmonia Lewis (1845-1909).
The child of an African American father and a Native American mother, Lewis was orphaned at a young age and, together with her brother Samuel, was sent to live with her mother’s sisters near Niagara Falls. Three years later, Samuel left for California, leaving his sister in the care of a guardian, and ultimately arranged her enrollment at the New York Central College, a co-education and racially integrated school in Upstate New York.
Three years later, Lewis entered Oberlin College, a progressive institution that promoted education for both genders and people of diverse ethnic backgrounds. There, Lewis took her first drawing classes. Although Lewis made connections at Oberlin that would serve her later, her time there was marked by accusations and violence: she was accused of poisoning two roommates (for which she was brutally beaten by a mob of townspeople; and ultimately tried and acquitted), and later for stealing art supplies. For the latter offense was expelled just months before her graduation.
From Oberlin, Lewis moved to Boston. Her Abolitionist connections led her to the portrait sculptor, Edward Brackett. It was under Brackett’s tutelage that Lewis realized that she would pursue a career as a sculptor. She began to produce terracotta and plaster portrait medallions of famous Abolitionists and heroes of the Civil War. The works sold quite well; enough for Lewis to afford passage to Italy.
“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 color.
The land of liberty had not room for a colored sculptor.”
— Edmonia Lewis
She eventually settled in Rome, where she would live for the rest of her life. There, Lewis worked under renowned American sculptor, Hiram Powers, and learned the art of marble sculpting. Working in the popular Neo-Classical style of the day, Lewis began to make a name for herself in Italy and the United States, and eventually established her own studio (a popular site for American tourists).
Lewis never established residency in American again, but often traveled to her native country to exhibit and sell her work. Her masterpiece, The Death of Cleopatra, earned critical acclaim at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, and is now part of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American Art.
In a 1996 PBS Newshour interview, art historian David Driskell described Lewis’ legacy. “Well, I think here was the bravery, the courageous person who did not let race, did not let gender, or anything like that stand in her way. And she was able to pursue her goals, her objectives without all of the obstacles that one normally associates with the period. I mean, we’re talking about somebody who’s just out of the period of slavery, and certainly who would not have had the patronage that some white Americans would have. So she pursued her goals and insisted upon being a part of the period and a part of that movement, and she was.”
ABOUT THE ARTWORK
Hiawatha’s Marriage is one in a series of sculptures inspired by the 1855 epic poem, “The Song of Hiawatha,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The sculpture captures a moment in the poem directly after Minnehaha agrees to marry Hiawatha, thereby uniting their tribes in peace.
Carved in white marble, Lewis captures the love and respect between the couple. The pair stride hand-in-hand, Hiawatha gently holding his bride-to-be with his left arm on her left shoulder. Although Lewis’ depiction of a Native American couple acknowledges their ethnicity through costume details and to some small degree in the handling of Hiawatha’s facial features, the style is still grounded in Neo-Classicism.
“As typical of neoclassical artists, Lewis used physical characteristics such as wide foreheads, and prominent noses to communicate 19th-century ideas of nobility and intelligence. Gentle expressions in women and protective stances by men conveyed the accepted gender roles of the day”. (Source: www.kiarts.org/news.php?article_id=38)
This tender and dignified depiction of Native Americans was a departure in 19th-century art, which often depicted native peoples as “savages.”
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From The May 2016 Issue Of Arts & Activities
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