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The Indomitable Sprit of Edmonia Lewis, A Narrative Biography provides additional sources, with full citations, and traces the impact of the articles quoted below and provides more quotations from the period.
An interesting novelty has sprung up amongst us, in a city where all our surroundings are of the olden time. Miss Edmonia Lewis, a lady of colour, has taken a studio in Rome, and the works as a sculptress in one of the rooms formerly occupied by the great master Canova. She is the only lady of her race in the United State who has applied herself to the study and practice of sculptural art, and the fact is so remarkable and unique that a brief sketch of her life, given almost in her own words, will, I am sure, be acceptable to the wide circle of your readers. “My mother,” she told me only last Monday, “was a wild Indian, and was born in Albany, of copper colour, and with straight, black hair. There she made and sold moccasins. My father, who was a negro, and a gentleman’s servant, saw her and married her. I was born at Greenhigh, in Ohio [sic, Greenbush Village, NY]. Mother often left her home, and wandered with her people, whose habits she could not forget, and thus we her children were brought up in the same wild manner. Until I was twelve years old I led this wandering life, fishing and swimming,” she added with great glee, “and making moccasins. I was then sent to school for three years in M’Graw, but was declared to be wild – they could do nothing with me. Often they said to me, ‘Here is your book, the book of Nature; come and study it.’ From this school I was sent to another, at Oblin [sic, Oberlin], in Ohio, where I remained four years, and then I thought of returning to wild life again; but my love of sculpture forbade it. Some friends recommended me to go to England, but I thought it better first to study in Rome.” And here she is, the descendant and member of a much-injured race, struggling against ignorant prejudice, but with genius enough to prove that she bears the image of Him who made all nations under the sun. Whilst her youth and her colour claim our warmest sympathies, Miss Edmonia Lewis has a very engaging appearance and manners. Her eyes and the upper part of her face are fine; the crisp hair and thick lips, on the other hand, bespeak her negro paternity. Naïve in manner, happy and cheerful and all-unconscious of difficulty, because obeying a great impulse, she prattles like a child and with much simplicity and spirit pours forth all her aspirations. At present, she has little to show; she appeals to the patronage and protection of the Christian world. There is the cast of a bust of Col. Shaw, who commanded the first coloured regiment that was ever formed, and who died “a leader for all time in Freedom’s Chivalry.” The bust was executed from a photograph, and now, as a commission from the sister of Col. Shaw, is being transferred to marble. Another commission is a bust of Mr. Dio Lewis, I believe, of New York. Her first ideal group was to be executed under a promise for some gentlemen in Boston, and, in the true spirit of a heroine, she has selected for her subject ‘The Freedwoman on first hearing of her Liberty.’ She has thrown herself on her knees, and, with clasped hands and uplifted eyes, she blesses God for her redemption. Her boy, ignorant of the cause of her agitation, hangs over her knees and clings to her waist. She wears the turban which was used when at work. Around her wrists are the half-broken manacles, and the chain lies on the ground attached to a large ball. “Yes,” she observed, “so was my race treated in the market and elsewhere.” It tells, with much eloquence, a painful story. H.W.
A young woman, of mixed negro and Indian blood, excited much
interest during the Union war, by exhibiting, at the Soldiers' Relief Fair in
Boston, a bust of Colonel Shaw — the " fair-haired hero," and martyr
to the cause of her race ; it seemed like an inspiration of grateful homage,
that so authentic a likeness and pleasing a work should have emanated from the
unpractised hands of a dusky maiden. Since then she has modelled " The
Freedwoman, on First Hearing of her Liberty " — of which it has been said
that " it tells with much eloquence a painful story." Of the curious
and speculative interest excited by this novice in sculpture, among the Roman
studios, we may judge by the following description contained in a recent letter
from that city : —
A young woman, of mixed negro and Indian blood, excited much interest during the Union war, by exhibiting, at the Soldiers' Relief Fair in Boston, a bust of Colonel Shaw — the " fair-haired hero," and martyr to the cause of her race ; it seemed like an inspiration of grateful homage, that so authentic a likeness and pleasing a work should have emanated from the unpractised hands of a dusky maiden. Since then she has modelled " The Freedwoman, on First Hearing of her Liberty " — of which it has been said that " it tells with much eloquence a painful story." Of the curious and speculative interest excited by this novice in sculpture, among the Roman studios, we may judge by the following description contained in a recent letter from that city : —
"Edmonia Lewis is a little American girl, scarcely twenty-two years of age, born in Greenbush. opposite Albany, on the Hudson, of Indian and negro parentage, and bearing in her face the characteristic types of her origin. In her coarse but appropriate attire, with her black hair loose, and grasping in her tiny hand the chisel with which she does not disdain —perhaps with which she is obliged — to work, and with her large, black, sympathetic eyes brimful of simple, unaffected enthusiasm, Miss Lewis is unquestionably the most interesting representative of our country in Europe. Interesting not alone because she belongs to a contemned and hitherto oppressed race, which labors under the imputation of artistic incapacity, but because she has already distinguished herself in sculpture — not perhaps in its highest grade, according to the accepted canons of the art, but in its naturalistic, not to say the most pleasing form. The undoubted criticism to be made on most American sculptors in Europe is that they gravitate too much toward what is called the "classical" in style, with a constantly increasing tendency. It may be reserved, for the youthful Indian girl in the Via della Frezza, which, as I have intimated, is quite an aside and by no means aristocratic street in Rome, through a success that may be well founded, and which certainly will be well earned, to indicate to her countrymen, working in the same field, a distinctive, if not entirely original style in sculpture, which may ultimately take high rank as the 'American School.' Has sculpture no new domains to occupy, no new worlds to conquer ? Have Greece and Rome exhausted every combination of form and lineament, so that nineteenth century life, and its loftier achievements and grander aspirations, can find no expression?"
Miss Lewis is by no means a prodigy; she has great natural genius, originality, earnestness, and a simple, genuine taste. Her works are as yet those of a girl. She has read Evangeline, and some others of Longfellow's poems, and has caught from them a girlish sentimentality, but has rather improved upon her author's conceptions in the process of giving them shape and reality. By and by, when her horizon of knowledge becomes more expanded, and her grasp on it firmer, she will leave the prettinesses of poems, and give us Pocahontas, Logan. Pontiac, Tecumseh, Red Jacket, and, it may be, Black Hawk and Osceola. Or if these may seem too near and real, and admitting less of effective accessories, there lie behind them all the great dramatic characters, Montezuma, Guatimozin, Huascar, and Atahualpa, to say nothing of the Malinche, that lost her country that she might save her love."
The most remarkable piece of sculpture in the American section was perhaps that in marble of The Death of Cleopatra by Edmonia Lewis, the sculptress and protégée of Charlotte Cushman. The great queen was seated in a chair, her head drooping over her left shoulder. The face of the figure was really fine in its naturalness and the gracefulness of the lines. The face was full of pain, and for some reason – perhaps to intensify the expression – the classic standard had been departed from, and the features were not even Egyptian in their outline, but of a decidedly Jewish cast. The human heads which ornamented the arms of the chair were obtrusive, and detracted from the dignity which the artist succeeded in gaining in the figure. A canopy of Oriental brightness in color had been placed over the statue.
An even more remarkable sculpture from the hand of a female artist than Miss Foley’s fountain which was in the Centennial Exhibition was the Cleopatra of Edmonia Lewis. This was not a beautiful work, but it was a very original and very striking one, and it deserves particular comment, as its ideal was so radically different from those adopted by Story and Gould in their statues of the Egyptian Queen. Story gave his Cleopatra Nubian features, and achieved an artistic if not a historical success by so doing. The Cleopatra of Gould suggests a Greek lineage. Miss Lewis, on the other hand, has followed the coins, medals, and other authentic records in giving her Cleopatra an aquiline nose and a prominent chin of the Roman type, for the Egyptian Queen appears to have had such features rather than such as would more positively suggest her Grecian descent. This Cleopatra, therefore, more nearly resembled the real heroine of history than either of the others, which, however, it should be remembered, laid no claims to being other than purely ideal works. Miss Lewis’ Cleopatra, like the figures sculptured by Story and Gould, is seated in a chair; the poison of the asp has done its work, and the Queen is dead. The effects of death are represented with such skill as to be absolutely repellant – and it is a question whether a statue of the ghastly characteristics of this one does not overstep the bounds of legitimate art. Apart from all questions of taste, however, the striking qualities of the work are undeniable, and it could only have been reproduced by a sculptor of very genuine endowments. … the real power of her Cleopatra was a revelation.