Background: Henry James famously labeled Charlotte Cushman’s feminist circle in Rome, “that strange sisterhood of American ‘lady sculptors’ who at one time settled upon the seven hills in a white marmorean flock.” Singling out Edmonia for special abuse, he ignored her name in favor of a sneering figure of speech, “One of the sisterhood, if I am not mistaken, was a negress, whose colour, picturesquely contrasting with that of her plastic material, was the pleading agent of her fame.” First-names refer to Harriet "Hatty" Hosmer, Anne Whitney, Abby Manning, Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein and Charlotte Cushman. "Abbé Liszt" is Franz Liszt, and "Storys" refers to artist-writer William Wetmore Story and his wife.
Had she lived today, Edmonia might puzzle over Henry James lumping her into “that strange sisterhood.” She had ample occasion to curse her isolation – and her own hand in it. Yet, she chose to swim alone, as she had done in her last year at Oberlin, rather than drift into backwaters of low regard and drown in self-pity.
In December 1868, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had taken up quarters in Rome for the winter. He settled in the brand new hotel, the Costanzi, that rose high above Edmonia’s modest shop. Naturally, he became the darling of Rome’s English-speaking high society. The bright-eyed, white-haired poet was more than a luminary in Edmonia’s eyes. He was her muse. He had inspired her most popular works and every one of the “sisterhood” knew it.
A clear mark of the exclusion Edmonia suffered, not one of her boosters in Rome thought to introduce her to the author or to even point him to her gallery of Hiawatha figures right next to his hotel. Not Hatty, not Anne and Abby, not Abbé Liszt and Princess Carolyne, and certainly not the Storys ever paused for Edmonia’s sake as they dined him in their apartments and toured him about the city.
A year earlier, Charlotte had roused friends to send The Wooing to Boston’s YMCA. She sent more of the Danish artist’s plaster composers to the Music Hall. For Edmonia, however, she and the rest vanished like butterflies in the wind. Their behavior suggests that word of Edmonia’s gaffe with the Sewalls must have scorched Charlotte’s ears when she visited Boston in late October – if not earlier.
Edmonia was as out of fashion as a Confederate dollar. Only Elizabeth Peabody, back in America and ever loyal, expressed concern about her financial crisis. As a reader of the Commonwealth and seemingly aware of the social gulf between Edmonia and the sisterhood, Elizabeth felt she had to relay her alarm to Charlotte in Rome!
Alas, Charlotte had left Rome in May after finding a lump in her breast. She eventually responded from England with a remarkable sham: “I ever do all I can for her, as does Emma Stebbins.”
If the stresses of error, isolation, debt, and a sluggish season were not sufficiently maddening, there was also the conflict with Margaret Foley, the former mill worker turned sculptor whose studio sat halfway between the Piazzas Barberini and di Spagna. Margaret sulked and Edmonia spit “a good deal of aboriginal venom” in a feud so bitter that gossips called it “war.” Letters fail to give details, but events suggest ample cause beyond the ill will common between Irish and colored Americans.
The self-taught Margaret had created a memorial portrait of Col. Shaw in Rome after his death. She must have felt thwarted to find a colored newcomer had swamped the ready market in Boston with the Shaw family blessing. In late 1865, she returned to Boston for a year and rented the very studio Edmonia had just vacated. Mr. Longfellow gave her a sitting there. Back in Rome, a critic called her profile of him “exquisite workmanship, and true to life.” It was a highlight of her collection, but critics extolled Edmonia at far greater length. Now Edmonia bathed in crowds of prime retail traffic while Margaret languished in a marginal location.
Margaret also raged against Charlotte Cushman, who had brought her to Rome in 1862. In Charlotte’s reply to Elizabeth Peabody cited above, the actress expressed anguish over “Miss Foley’s trepidations and prejudices against me.” Was it that Charlotte had favored the “colored sculptor” with her fund-raising patronage and not the Irish cameo artist?
Her back to the wall, Edmonia dug in. She desperately needed a new sign of success. Capturing the author of her mythic lovers could ease her pain. An excellent portrait might redeem her in Boston, where Longfellow was held in the highest esteem.
She put her low status to work. Never introduced, she could scrutinize him on the streets of Rome while remaining as anonymous as a city pigeon. She caught glimpses as he strolled, waited for a carriage, or went to lunch or dinner. She likely stalked him in front of his hotel, down the street, and as he headed for G. P. A. Healy’s studio around the corner. With skills learned as a child in the woods, she evaded his notice. Longfellow was likely preoccupied with learned figures of speech – describing Rome for example, “like king Lear staggering in the storm and crowned with weeds.”
Skilled and sure, her fingers flew at the clay – maybe the last scrap at her disposal. Although the man was always fully clothed and wore a fine hat outside, she made him as hatless and bare-chested as the masters of Olympus. It was the portrait look most often adopted by sculptors who followed the ancient Greeks. Longfellow was, after all, a member of the modern literary pantheon. In the ever-wishful idiom of the day, the depiction could show him as more god than mortal man.
Still, she surely longed to meet him. He would leave Rome after Carnival like every other tourist.
In the end, their introduction was by chance, as remarkable as it was humble. Longfellow’s youngest brother, whose report Anne Whitney captured with scant detail, browsed into her studio. There was no mention of the damp rags that must have covered the soft clay. Nor was there much of their conversation.
Edmonia likely recognized him as a member of the Longfellow party. She probably greeted him and asked if she could help. Did she invite him to view the bust and then remove the cloth? Or, was she wily, slipping the cloth away and then silently guiding her prey like a rabbit to a trap?
No matter. To his utter surprise, the Longfellow brother suddenly came eye-to-eye with the poet’s stern visage. It stared back at him, seizing his attention, spurring his excitement. Thrilled, he dashed next door and fetched the family.
As they admired her work, perhaps they discussed Evangeline, the Civil War, the Fields, and the many other people they knew in common. No doubt, some conversation turned on the Longfellow-inspired array in her studio. It is likely she offered him his pick.
The only person dissatisfied with the image was Edmonia, according to Anne’s letter home. She begged the poet sit for a moment while she corrected his nose.
Anne Whitney was finally impressed by Edmonia’s skill. She wrote to her sister that the family received the portrait as one of the best, praise confirmed by the Spectator. That was also the consensus at the Art-Journal in London. Within a year, its critic enthusiastically called her work “the truest and finest likeness of the poet I have ever seen.”
Confidence and determination renewed, Edmonia resolved to brave her critics in Boston. She first sent photos, hoping to raise funds to copy it in marble. Someone, probably one of Longfellow’s family, had tipped her that Harvard lacked a good portrait and hoped for a donation. She also wished to soothe the soreness connected with the sudden arrival of Forever Free and to raise money to pay her costs.
All she needed was money for passage. It was money she could only dream of having. She had stretched her credit tighter than the old arrow maker’s bowstring.
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See the Bust of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (modeled 1869, carved 1871) at Harvard University Art Museums
More about The Indomitable Spirit of Edmonia Lewis, by Harry Henderson and Albert Henderson
Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907) was the first famous “colored sculptor,” one of a generation of feminist literary sculptors, and the first to idealize her African- and American-Indian heritages in stone. She flourished from 1864 through 1878, shuttling between Rome, Italy, and the United Sates as proof that the mean myth of white male superiority in the fine arts was false. Aided by the most famous abolitionists, she “crossed swords” with anti-slavery reformer Lydia Maria Child, and challenged the references of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Based primarily on decades of research by Harry Henderson (co-author with Romare Bearden of A History of African American Artists from 1792 to the Present), The Indomitable Spirit of Edmonia Lewis offers a fresh look at Edmonia Lewis's life and art – and how she helped shape today's world. Revealing more essential facts and sources than ever before collected and published, it clears away the considerable misinformation about her origins, progress, demeanor, and final years.
It includes more than 100,000 words, 50 illustrations (12 in color), 800 hyperlinked notes, a bibliography, and a catalog of more than 100 works with notes on more than twenty museums that collect her work.
Following are a few highlights:
Fresh evidence, never before collected and collated, argues a novel motive for her erotic masterwork, the Death of Cleopatra, which sits apart in her œuvre like a hussy in a small town church. Newly realized sources also change our view of her childhood and provide ample support to refute distortions of her personal character, sexuality, and appearance.
Born near Albany NY and orphaned early in life, Lewis grew up with Indians on the New York / Canadian border. Her romantic illustrations of Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha,” which were considered authentic because of her Indian background, produced many more orders than her now-iconic Emancipation themes, her many portraits, or her religious works.
Under the sponsorship of her Haitian-born half-brother, a barber who had followed the Gold Rush to Bozeman MT, she was educated in New York and Ohio. After some years at Oberlin College, she suffered humiliations, bullying, and a brutal assault. Young John Mercer Langston advocated on her behalf, but not before her local reputation was ruined. Because the College did not allow her to finish her degree, she went to Boston to study art – a unique goal for a young woman of color. Her brother continued to play a major role in her life.
Lydia Maria Child, a famous abolitionist, egalitarian, and the source of the “tragic mulatta” theme in American literature, became a great admirer. Soon, however, they were at odds. Child praised her in public but privately opposed her in a neurotic spiral that ended in complete alienation.
Lewis moved to Italy where she found a society of artists made famous by Nathaniel Hawthorne in “The Marble Faun.” A few helped her, but most cursed her invasion of a world long dominated by white males. It was, in fact, a society of ferocious rivalries that privately embarrassed the prudish Salem-born author
She became a member of a Catholic circle that included fellow sculptor Isabel Curtis Cholmeley and composer Franz Liszt. Acknowledging the Jesuit missionaries who taught her prayers as a child, she took Roman Catholic baptism with the name “Maria Ignatia” as an adult in Italy. Thus she returned to America in 1869 as a member of a minority religion by choice while suffering biases against her native color, gender, and class. The news made little difference to African-American members of Protestant sects who embraced her as their hero.
Decades later, Henry James identified her with "that strange sisterhood of American 'lady sculptors' who at one time settled upon the seven hills in a white, marmorean flock." Yet the sisterhood, feminists who orbited lesbian actress Charlotte Cushman, had abandoned Lewis her after raising money to send one of her works to Boston.
A decade of regular tours took her west to San Francisco and San Jose, and along the way to Chicago, Baltimore, St. Louis, St. Paul, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Syracuse, Albany, and New York City. She took satisfaction from her assault on racist myths in the United States, but she retired to Europe, where her color was rarely at issue. Frederick Douglass, who had told her to ‘go east’ in 1863, met her again in Rome in 1887, according to his diary. Her life after that was a mystery for more than 100 years, until our recent discovery of her 1907 death certificate and related documents in England.
The newly industrialized press played an enormous role in making celebrities. (It had even turned fiction into artistic fact, for example, as readers applied Hawthorne’s hyperbole to W.W. Story’s statue, “Cleopatra,” with lasting effect.) It made Lewis internationally known shortly after she arrived in Rome. It continued to recognize her through the era of Reconstruction but not thereafter. Writers, who rarely shared her race, religion, or gender, filtered the content of their interviews. Their sometimes hostile coverage nonetheless reflects a woman determined to make a statement. Thus our Prologue to her biography begins, “Think of Edmonia Lewis as an artist at war.”
As an artist at war, Lewis was a rare instrument for social change in the aftermath of the Civil War. Emerging in “the Athens of America,” then heading for Rome, she pressed her case for equality with help from the Republican press. Among her greatest achievements, she became the only artist of color invited to exhibit at the 1876 Centennial. She created a sensation, regularly appearing in person with her marble “Death of Cleopatra” and several other works while most artists left their work unattended.
Her biography reveals private letters, public documents, essays, hundreds of news items, reviews of her work, museum collections, and more than two dozen published interviews. It shows how a world biased against her color, class, gender and religion received her during her lifetime – sometimes cordially, sometimes with harsh rebuke. The narrative opens an abundance of previously unrecognized sources, reinterprets important relationships, names missing works, and corrects the identification of an important portrait. Students of the nineteenth century will find it a cool counterpoint to the bitter rage raised by women’s suffrage, Civil War, and Reconstruction.
Our examination of Lewis’s life provided a basis for new considerations of her art. Readers familiar with her legendary icons of race may be surprised by her many portraits, her religious works, and her untold moves to Paris and London. Unexpected are the clashes of art and culture as she attempted to honor the liberation of her father’s people. Fans of Lewis will also find long-standing questions addressed:
=> Where did she turn when she stopped sculpting ethnic themes?
=> Where, when, and how did she die – a mystery for more than 100 years?
=> Why did she seemingly change the subject – “For this reason the Virgin Mary is very dear to me" – when asked about her depiction of Hagar in the wilderness?
=> Where did she live in Boston, and why did her encounter with a bronze Ben Franklin leave her reeling?
=> How did she adapt non-classical American subjects, such as “Forever Free” and “The Old Arrow-Maker,” to the strict rules of neoclassical sculpture?
=> Why did she have to stalk Henry Wadsworth Longfellow through the streets of Rome to sculpt her celebrated portrait of him?
=> Where were her studios in Rome, and how did she receive racist visitors from America?
=> How was her "Death of Cleopatra" related to Hawthorne's "Marble Faun" and WW Story's famous statue?
=> How often did she tour America, and how did she deal with hostile interviewers?
=> How did wealthy English Catholics embrace her?
=> How do Lewis’s illustrations of “Song of Hiawatha,” considered "authentic," compare with the observations of anthropologists?
=> What role did photography play in her career, and how did she become a self-made businesswoman?
=> How did she enter her work in the 1876 Centennial expo, which had blocked all colored people from taking part (even contributing donations)?
=> What were her relationships with fans, mentors, and fellow sculptors, and why did her American boosters turn on her?
=> Who were her rivals, her best friends, and her worst enemies, and what was her relationship with the suffragettes?
=> What was her Indian name in the Chippewa language, and when did she ask to be called “Edmonia” instead of “Mary?”
=> What was her sexual orientation, and what was the problem with her sculpting a black woman?
=> Who were the important African-American clergymen whose portraits she sculpted?
Lewis associated with top abolitionists and celebrated literary figures. Her life should be of special interest to: students of African-American studies, American studies, art history, women’s history, American history, and American-Indian studies, as well as scholars of race, gender, the 19th-century American novel and popular culture.
About the authors: Harry Henderson was co-author with Romare Bearden of the “landmark” History of African-American Artists from 1792 (Pantheon, 1993) and 6 Black Masters of American Art (Doubleday, 1972). Albert Henderson edited Publishing Research Quarterly for six years and has contributed to a number of learned journals and books.
to Order, click here: The Indomitable Spirit of Edmonia Lewis. A Narrative Biography
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