A Fine American 19th century White Marble Sculpture of “Rebecca at The Well” Depicting a Classical maiden wearing a robe, one breast exposed, standing next to a well holding a water urn. Signed: Edmonia Lewis (American, 1843-1911).
Height 42 1/2 inches (108 cm)
Width 22 inches (55.9 cm)
Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907) was an African American sculptor who worked for most of her career in Rome. She gained fame and recognition as a sculptor in the international fine arts world. Her work is known for incorporating themes relating to black and American Indian people into Neoclassical style sculpture.
Edmonia Lewis was born on July 4, 1844, in Greenbush, New York, which is now the city of Rensselaer. Her father was an Afro-Haitian, while her mother was of Mississauga Ojibwe and African-American descent. Lewis's mother was known as an excellent weaver and craftswoman, while her father was a gentleman's servant. Her family background inspired Lewis in her later work.
By the time Lewis reached the age of nine both of her parents had died. Her mother's two sisters then adopted both Lewis and her older brother Samuel, who was born in 1832. The children remained with their aunts near Niagara Falls for about the next four years. Lewis and her aunts sold Ojibwe baskets and other souvenirs, such as moccasins and blouses, to tourists visiting Niagara Falls, Toronto, and Buffalo. During this time, Lewis went by her Native American name, Wildfire, while her brother was called Sunshine. In 1852 Samuel left for California, leaving Lewis in the care of a Captain S. R. Mills, although he continuously sent back money for her board and education. Later, in 1856, Lewis was enrolled at New York Central College in McGrawville, which was a Baptist abolitionist school. During her summer term there in 1858, Lewis took classes in the Primary Department in order to prepare for courses she would later take in collegiate programs. In a later interview, Lewis claimed she remained at the school for three years but left when she was "declared to be wild."
In 1859, with help from her brother Samuel and abolitionists, Lewis was sent to Oberlin College at the age of about fifteen, where she changed her name to Mary Edmonia Lewis.At the time, Oberlin College was one of the first higher learning institutions in the United States to admit women and people of differing ethnicities. Lewis's decision to attend Oberlin was one that would significantly change her life, as that is where she began her art studies. Lewis boarded with Reverend John Keep and his wife from 1859 until she left the college in 1863. Reverend Keep was white and a member of the board of trustees, but was also an avid abolitionist and spokesperson for coeducation. During the 1859-60 school year, Lewis enrolled in the Young Ladies' Preparatory Department, which was designed "to give Young Ladies facilities for the thorough mental discipline, and the special training which will qualify them for teaching and other duties of their sphere."
During the winter season of 1862, several months after the start of the Civil War, while Edmonia Lewis attended Oberlin College, an incident involved her and two classmates, Maria Miles and Christina Ennes. The three women, who boarded in the home of Oberlin trustee John Keep, planned to go sleigh riding with some young men later that day. Before the sleighing, Lewis served her friends a drink of spiced wine. Shortly after, Miles and Ennes fell severely ill. Doctors examined them and concluded that the two women had some sort of poison in their system, apparently cantharides, a reputed aphrodisiac. For a time it was not certain that they would survive. Days later, it became apparent that the two women would recover from the incident, and, because of their recovery, the authorities initially took no action.
Townspeople attacked Lewis. While she was walking home alone one night, she was dragged into an open field by unknown assailants and badly beaten. Those responsible for her injuries were never found. Due to the attack, local authorities arrested Lewis, charging her with poisoning her friends. The college defended their student throughout the trial. John Mercer Langston, an Oberlin College alumnus, and the only practicing African-American lawyer in Oberlin, represented Lewis during her trial. Although most witnesses spoke against her and she did not testify, the jury acquitted her of the charges.
About a year after the trial, Lewis was accused of stealing artists' materials from the college. Even though she was acquitted due to lack of evidence, she was forbidden from registering for her last term by the principal of the Young Ladies' Course, Marianne Dascomb, which prevented Lewis from graduating.
Art career - Boston
After college, Lewis moved to Boston in early 1864, where she began to pursue her career as a sculptor. The keeps wrote a letter of introduction on Lewis' behalf to William Llyod Garrison in Boston, and he was able to introduce her to already established sculptors in the area, as well as writers who then publicized Lewis in the abolitionist press. Finding an instructor, however, was not easy for Lewis. Three male sculptors refused to instruct her before she was introduced to the moderately successful sculptor Edward A. Brackett who specialized in marble portrait busts. His clients were some of the most important abolitionists of the day including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Llyod Garrison, Charles Sumner, and John Brown. To instruct her, he lent her fragments of sculptures to copy in clay, which he then critiqued. Under his tutelage, she crafted her own sculpting tools and sold her first piece, a sculpture of a woman’s hand, for $8. Their relationship did not end amicably as was mentioned by Anne Whitney, fellow sculptor and friend of Lewis', in a letter she wrote to her sister in 1864. The reason for the split, however, was never mentioned. She opened her studio to the public in her first solo exhibition in 1864.
Lewis was inspired by the lives of abolitionists and Civil War heroes. Her subjects in 1863 and 1864 included some of the most famous abolitionists of her day: John Brown and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. She met Union Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the commander of an African American Civil War regiment from Massachusetts. She was inspired to create a bust of his likeness, which impressed the Shaw family, who purchased her homage. Lewis then made plaster cast reproductions of the bust, which she sold one hundred of at fifteen dollars apiece. Anna Quincy Waterston, a poet, then wrote a poem about both Lewis and Shaw.
From 1864 to 1871, Lewis was written about or interviewed by Lydia Maria Child, Elizabeth Peabody, Anna Quincy Waterston, and Laura Curtis Bullard. These were all important women in Boston and New York abolitionist circles. Because of these women, articles about Lewis appeared in important abolitionist journals including Broken Fetter, the Christian Register, and the Independent, as well as many others. Lewis was perceptive to her reception in Boston. She was not opposed to the coverage she received in the abolitionist press, and she was not known to deny monetary aid, but she could not tolerate the false praise. She knew that some did not really appreciate her art, but saw her as an opportunity to express and show their support for human rights.
Early works that proved highly popular included medallion portraits of the abolitionists John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison. Lewis also drew inspiration from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his work, particularly his epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha. She made several busts of its leading characters, for which he drew from Ojibwe legend.
The success and popularity of these works in Boston allowed Lewis to bear the cost of a trip to Rome in 1866. On her 1865 passport is written, "M. Edmonia Lewis is a Black girl sent by subscription to Italy having displayed great talents as a sculptor". The established sculptor Hiram Powers gave her space to work in his studio. She entered a circle of expatriate artists and established her own space within the former studio of 18th-century Italian sculptor Antonio Canova. She received professional support from both Charlotte Cushman, a Boston actress and a pivotal figure for expatriate sculptors in Rome, and Maria Weston Chapman, a dedicated worker for anti slavery.
Rome was where Lewis spent most of her adult career. She began sculpting in marble, working within the neoclassical manner, but focusing on naturalism within themes and images relating to black and American Indian people. The surroundings of the classical world greatly inspired her and influenced her work. She recreated the classical art style in her own work. For instance, she presented people in her sculptures as draped in robes rather than in contemporary clothing.
Lewis was unique in the way she approached sculpting abroad. She insisted on enlarging her clay and wax models in marble herself, rather than hire native Italian sculptors to do it for her, which was the common practice. She also was known to make sculptures before receiving commissions for them, or sent unrequested works to Boston patrons requesting that they raise funds for materials and shipping.
Her work sold for large sums of money. In 1873 an article in the New Orleans Picayune stated, “Edmonia Lewis had snared two 50,000 dollar commissions.” Her new-found popularity made her studio a tourist destination. Lewis had many major exhibitions during her rise to fame, including one in Chicago, Illinois in 1870, and in Rome in 1871.
A major coup in her career was participating in the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. For this, she created a monumental 3,015-pound marble sculpture, The Death of Cleopatra, which portrayed the queen in the throes of death. Of the piece, J. S. Ingraham wrote that Cleopatra was “the most remarkable piece of sculpture in the American section” of the Exposition. Much of the viewing public was shocked by Lewis’s frank portrayal of death, but the statue drew thousands of viewers. After being placed in storage, the statue was moved to the 1878 Chicago Interstate Exposition where it remained unsold. The Sculpture was acquired by a gambler by the name of "Blind John" Condon who purchased it from a saloon on Clark street to mark the grave of a Racehorse named "Cleopatra". The grave was in front of the grandstand of his Harlem race track in the Chicago suburb of Forest park. It remained there until it was moved to a construction storage yard in Cicero. While at the storage yard, The Death of Cleopatra sustained extensive damage at the hands of well meaning Boy Scouts who painted and caused further damage to the sculpture. Dr. James Orland, a Dentist in Forest park, and member of the Forest Park Historical Society acquired the sculpture and held it in private storage at the Forest Park Mall. Later, Marilyn Richardson, an independent curator and Scholar of African American Art who was working on a Biography of Lewis went searching for "the Death of Cleopatra". Richardson was directed to the Forest Park Historical Society and Dr. Orland by the Metropolitan Museum of Art who had been contacted by the historical society regarding the sculpture at an earlier date. Richardson, after confirming the sculptures location, contacted African American bibliographer Dorothy Porter Wesley and the two gained the attention of NMAAs George Gurney. According to George Gurney, Curator Emeritus at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the sculpture was in a race track in Forest Park, Illinois, during World War II, sitting on top of the Finally, the sculpture became under the purview of the Forest Park Historical Society, who donated it to Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1994, Chicago based Andrezej Dajnowski in conjunction with the Smithsonian restored it to its near-original state after repairing the nose,sandles, hands, chin, and extensive "sugaring" at at cost of around $30,000.
A testament to Lewis's renown as an artist came in 1877, when former US President Ulysses S. Grant commissioned her to do his portrait. He sat for her as a model and was pleased with her finished piece.
In the late 1880s, the neoclassical genre became less popular, and Lewis's popularity also declined. She continued to work in marble, increasingly creating altarpieces and other works for Roman Catholic patrons. In the art world, she became eclipsed by history and lost fame. By 1901 she had moved to London.The events of her later years are not known.
Lewis never married and had no known children. Her brother Samuel became a barber in San Francisco, eventually moving to mining camps in Idaho and Montana. In 1868, he settled in the city of Bozeman, where he set up a barber shop on Main Street. He prospered, eventually investing in commercial real estate, and subsequently built his own home which still stands at 308 South Bozeman Avenue. In 1999 the Samuel Lewis House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1884, he married Mrs. Melissa Railey Bruce, a widow with six children; they had one son, Samuel E. Lewis (1886–1914), who married but died childless. The elder Lewis died after "a short illness" in 1896 and is buried in Sunset Hills Cemetery in Bozeman.
For years, the year of Edmonia Lewis’s death was speculated to be 1911 in Rome. An alternative view held that she died in Marin County, California, and was buried in an unmarked grave in San Francisco. Recent scholarship has found that she lived in the Hammersmith area of London, England before her death on September 17, 1907, in the Hammersmith Borough Infirmary. According to her death certificate, the cause of her death was chronic Bright's disease.
Descriptions of most popular works:
Forever Free, 1867
This sculpture is of white marble. It represents a man standing, staring up, and raising his left arm into the air. Wrapped around his left wrist is a chain; however, this chain is not restraining him. To his right is a woman kneeling with her hands held in a prayer position. The man’s right hand is gently placed on her right shoulder. Forever Free represents the emancipation of African-American slaves after the Civil War. Lewis attempted to break stereotypes of African-American women with this sculpture. For example, she portrayed the woman as completely dressed while the man was partially dressed. This drew attention away from the notion of African-American women being sexual figures. This sculpture also symbolizes the end of the Civil War. While African Americans were legally free, they continued to be restrained, shown by the fact that the couple had chains wrapped around their bodies. This piece is held by Howard University Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Inspired by a character from the Old Testament, this was made of white marble. It shows Hagar with her hands in prayer and staring slightly up but not straight across. Hagar was the handmaid or slave of Abraham's wife Sarah. Being unable to conceive a child, Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham so that he could have a son by her. Hagar gave birth to Abraham's firstborn son Ishmael. After Sarah gave birth to her own son Isaac, she resented Hagar and made Abraham “cast Hagar into the wilderness." Lewis uses Hagar to symbolize the African mother in the United States. She represented the abuse of African women. Lewis had a tendency to sculpt historically strong women. We see this not just in Hagar but also in Lewis's Cleopatra piece. Lewis also depicted regular women in great situations, emphasizing their strength.
Old Arrow-Maker and his Daughter, 1866
This sculpture was inspired by Lewis's Native American heritage. An arrow-maker and his daughter sit on a round base. They are dressed in traditional Native American clothes and the male figure has recognizable Native American facial features. Lewis chose to "whitewash" the facial features of her female figures, removing all facial features associated with "colored" races. Lewis pushed the limits with the accuracy of her sculptures. She found truth in the particular and used that in her work. She wanted to be as realistic as possible.
The Death of Cleopatra, 1867, collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Cleveland Museum of Art.
The Walters Art Museum.
Smithsonian American Art Museum
National Museum of American Art