Mary Edmonia Lewis, also known as “Wildfire” (c. July 4, 1844 – September 17, 1907), was an American sculptor, of mixed African-American and Native American (Mississauga Ojibwe) heritage. Born free in Upstate New York, she worked for most of her career in Rome, Italy.
She was the first African-American and Native American sculptor to achieve national and then international prominence.
Her work is known for incorporating themes relating to Black people and indigenous peoples of the Americas into Neoclassical-style sculpture.
Hiawatha, 1868, by Edmonia Lewis, inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow‘s 1855 poem The Song of Hiawatha.
Old Arrow Maker
Edmonia Lewis, Old Arrow Maker, modeled 1866, carved 1872, marble, Smithsonian American Art Museum
On the Complexity of Identity
Edmonia Lewis and the complexity of identity
Edmonia Lewis, The Old Arrow Maker, modeled 1866, carved c. 1872, marble, 50.8 x 35.6 x 35.6 cm (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art). A conversation with Dr. Mindy Besaw, Curator, American Art and Director of Fellowships and Research, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and Dr. Beth Harris.
Edmonia Lewis, Hagar, 1875, carved marble, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Lewis had a tendency to sculpt historically strong women, as demonstrated not just in Hagar but also in Lewis’s Cleopatra piece. Lewis also depicted ordinary women in extreme situations, emphasizing their strength.
Hagar is inspired by a character from the Old Testament, the handmaid or slave of Abraham’s wife Sarah. Being unable to conceive a child, Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham, in order to bear him a son. Hagar gave birth to Abraham’s firstborn son Ishmael, and after Sarah gave birth to her own son Isaac, she resented Hagar and made Abraham “cast her into the wilderness”.
The piece was made of white marble, and Hagar is standing as if about to walk on, with her hands clasped in prayer and staring slightly up but not straight across. Lewis uses Hagar to symbolize the African mother in the United States, and the frequent sexual abuse of African women by white men.
The Death of Cleopatra
Edmonia Lewis, The Death of Cleopatra, carved 1876, marble, Smithsonian American Art Museum
A major coup in Edmonia Lewis’ 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, portraying the queen in the throes of death.
This piece depicts the moment popularized by Shakespeare in Antony and Cleopatra, in which Cleopatra had allowed herself to be bitten by a poisonous asp following the loss of her crown.
“Wikiwand – Edmonia Lewis.” Wikiwand, http://www.wikiwand.com/en/Edmonia_Lewis. Accessed 29 Jan.. 2023.