Unforgetting a Forgotten Pioneer: How the 19th-Century Sculptor Edmonia Lewis Blazed the Path for Women of Color in the Fine Arts
On talent, violence, visibility, and the world-shifting power of women helping women.
By Maria Popova
This essay is excerpted from my book Figuring.
When the nineteenth-century sculptor Harriet Hosmer was blazing the way for women in art while living as an openly queer person in Rome, she took special care to use her visibility as a platform for making others visible, her success as an opportunity-broadening instrument for the success of others. The pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell, who was doing for women in science what Hosmer was doing in art and who met the sculptor while visiting Rome as America’s first international scientific celebrity, recounted that “if there came to any struggling artist in Rome the need of a friend, — and of the thousand artists in Rome very few are successful, — Harriet Hosmer was that friend.”
One of the young artists Hosmer took under her friendly wing was the sculptor Edmonia Lewis (July 4, 1844–September 17, 1907) — the daughter of a Cherokee mother and a black father.
After growing up among Native Americans, Lewis had attended Oberlin College — not only the first university to admit women, but the first to admit women of ethnic minorities. But the university was no unbigoted idyll — when two white classmates became ill after sharing spiced wine served by Lewis, they accused her of poisoning them, even though she herself had drunk the wine without harm. Word spread beyond the liberal Oberlin campus. One evening, as Lewis was walking home from class by herself, she was attacked and forced into an open field, where she was brutally beaten and left for dead. Having barely survived, she — rather than her assailants — was arrested, an analog across the centuries to the same warping of justice that had befallen Medusa and Beatrice Cenci, the mytho-historical figures which Hosmer had sculpted into the masterpieces that made her famous.
Lewis was charged with poisoning her classmates on evidence as logically consistent and factually compelling as that on which Johannes Kepler’s mother had been tried for witchcraft. A prominent black lawyer, himself an Oberlin alumnus, defended her successfully—she was exonerated and eventually moved to Boston, where she studied with a successful sculptor before following in Hosmer’s footsteps and moving to Rome in her early thirties, at the same age that Hosmer had migrated there fifteen years earlier.
From Rome, Lewis wrote to her friend Lydia Maria Child — one of the era’s most politically wakeful public voices, who had championed the young Hosmer when she had been Lewis’s age:
A Boston lady took me to Miss Hosmer’s studio. It would have done your heart good to see what a welcome I received. She took my hand cordially, and said, “Oh, Miss Lewis, I am glad to see you here!” and then, while she still held my hand, there flowed such a neat little speech from her true lips!… Miss Hosmer has since called on me, and we often meet.
Lewis went on to become the nineteenth century’s only African American artist of mainstream recognition. In 1876, her 3,015- pound marble sculpture The Death of Cleopatra — a pinnacle of beauty and tragedy in a daring direct portrayal of unglamorized death — became a crowning curio at the first official World’s Fair in America, lauded as the most remarkable piece in the American section of the exhibition.
Complement with Gwendolyn Brooks — the first black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize, at the age Lewis was when she moved to Rome — on vulnerability as strength, then revisit the wondrous illustrated story of Wangari Maathai — the first African woman to win the Nobel Prize for her courageous endeavor to plant a million trees as an act of resistance and empowerment.
Published June 10, 2020