Forgotten Women is a series dedicated to giving women of history the exposure they deserve. This week, we’re paying tribute to Edmonia Lewis, a celebrated artist of colour at a time when slavery dominated American life.
The woman in a crown reclines on a throne, her head to one side, her lips turned slightly upwards, almost smiling. She wears robes, the folds of cloth gathered at her waist. In her hand she holds an asp; one full breast is bared. She is 12-feet tall, weighs two tonnes and is made of marble.
This is The Death Of Cleopatra, a colossal sculpture in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC. It is the work of Edmonia Lewis, the first professional African-American and Native American sculptor, who blazed a trail by becoming a famed artist at a time when much of black America still struggled against slavery.
Born to an Afro-Haitian father and a mother with both Native American and African-American ancestry, the 15-year-old Lewis became one of the first non-white students to study art at Ohio’s Oberlin College in 1859.
She was not permitted to graduate after being accused of theft, but, undeterred, she moved to Boston in 1864, setting up a studio and modelling busts of the abolitionists who were her early patrons. The bust she subsequently made of anti-slavery campaigner Robert Gould Shaw in 1864 earned enough money for her to travel to Italy to study.
She later told The New York Times of having to go abroad to continue her studies: “I was practically driven to Rome in order to obtain the opportunities for art culture, and to find a social atmosphere where I was not constantly reminded of my colour. The land of liberty had no room for a coloured sculptor.”
In Rome, Lewis made a sculpture in 1867 paying tribute to the Emancipation Proclamation – Abraham Lincoln’s landmark presidential order freeing more than three million US slaves. Called Forever Free, it depicts a black man, breaking free of his shackles, holding his arm triumphantly aloft.
The following year, Lewis made Hiawatha’s Marriage, which called to her own heritage and broke with tradition in depicting non-white subjects. Inspired by her own Catholicism and Rome’s classical statues, she made biblical statues and busts of figures such as the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Cleopatra, however, was her masterpiece. Four years in the making, Lewis’s interpretation of the death of the Egyptian Queen ignored the clichés of male classical artworks – her Egyptian queen is triumphant, almost ecstatic in death. It went on display at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and, out of 500 sculptures, critics declared it the grandest. Her fame was fleeting, though. She kept working but her neo-classical style went out of vogue and she drifted from the public eye, dying in London aged 63 in 1907.
Lewis leaves many fine sculptures, but she was modest about her work. “Some praise me because I am a coloured girl,” she said. “But I don’t want that kind of praise. I had rather you would point out my defects, for that will teach me something.”
Main illustration: Josie Jammet