Black History Month: Edmonia Lewis

04 October 2017

Edmonia Lewis was an African American and Native American sculptor who was one of the only black women to be in any way recognised by the mainstream American artistic community in the 19th Century. Against the odds she secured herself an education and was able to earn enough money from her abolitionist patrons to visit Italy. She spent most of her career in Rome, standing out because of her defiant use of black and Native American subjects in her neoclassical sculpture.

Her 1865 passport reads ‘M. Edmonia Lewis is a black girl sent by subscription to Italy having displayed great talents as a sculptor’. In Rome she quickly established herself in a circle of expatriate artists and her studio became a destination for tourists. However, getting to Rome and establishing herself left Edmonia with significant debts. She often made works without commission, sending them to her patrons in Boston with requests for funds or presented works to those in her circle of artists, intellectuals and abolitionists.

Her methods, as well as the subjects of her work, were unusual, focusing on naturalism in her neoclassical sculptures of black and Native American figures. Edmonia preferred to enlarge her clay or wax models in marble herself rather than hiring Italian sculptors  for the job as most sculptors at this time would have done; personally taking her work from conception to completion.

Her reputation spread and in 1868 a gentlemen presented himself at her studio and in one purchase was able to settle all her debts.

This gentleman was none other than John Patrick Crichton Stuart, the 3rd Marquess of Bute, visiting Rome after having recently converted to Catholicism. The meeting of the young Marquess and the artist has not been recorded, although Edmonia often mentioned his patronage.

“Why, I am invited everywhere, and am treated just as nicely as if the bluest of blue blood flowed through my veins. I number among my patrons the Marquis [sic] of Bute, Lady Ashburton and other members of the nobility.”

Despite living lives worlds apart they may well have been able to find some common ground at their first meeting. John had lost his father months after he was born and his mother, Sophia, when he was only twelve; Edmonia had experience of a childhood without parents, having been orphaned at 9 years old. As a student of languages and a curious scholar the 3rd Marquess would have been fascinated by Edmonia’s background and the languages of her many cultures, including her mother’s Native American language, Ojibwe.

John ultimately bought, for £3000, an altarpiece of the Madonna and Christ most probably now lost in the 1877 fire at Mount Stuart. The Marquess made several purchases and commissions from Edmonia over his time as her patron including this bust of Christ, still in the Bute Collection, in 1870.

 

Her debts settled Edmonia could set her sights on bigger and better things. The height of Edmonia’s fame and popularity can be marked by two events. Firstly, in 1876 she was part of the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia; the first official World’s Fair in America. Her piece, The Death of Cleopatra, was 3051 pounds of marble frankly portraying the death throes of the Egyptian queen. J.S. Ingram wrote that it ‘…was the most remarkable piece of sculpture in the American Section.’ Secondly, the former president Ulysses S. Grant commissioned Edmonia to sculpt his portrait, personally sitting for the artist in 1877.