Celebrated, forgotten, redeemed: how Edmonia Lewis made her mark | Art and design
A bust of the first black American woman to work as a professional sculptor was on display in the UK last week after languishing in a cupboard in a stately home for more than 100 years.
The work, a bust of Christ, was created by Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907) in her studio in Rome in 1870. Lewis was internationally renowned in his time but died in obscurity in London. She was buried in unmarked land in a Kensal Green cemetery, and for many years her history and knowledge of her sculpture seemed to have been buried with her.
In the decades that followed, however, some of his work had remained in a closet at Mount Stuart, a Gothic mansion on the Isle of Bute, off the west coast of Scotland. The bust was purchased soon after its creation by the 3rd Marquess of Bute, John Patrick Crichton-Stuart, who was an admirer of Lewis’s work.
“It ended up in a porcelain cupboard, and it remained there until 2015”, explains the great-great-granddaughter of the Marquis Sophie Crichton-Stuart. By this time, Lewis’s work was gaining attention, especially in the United States, where she was born to an Ojibwa Indian mother and an African-American father.
Both of her parents died when she was very young, and Lewis went to live with her mother’s family, where she was known by her Indian name, Wildfire. Her brother, Sunrise, became a gold digger and paid for her to go to college. There, however, she was the victim of targeted racism when she was accused of attempting to poison her white classmates. She was acquitted, but not before being beaten by vigilantes.
She moved to Boston to study sculpture, and began to make abolitionist busts: the sale of one of them, that of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, enabled her to finance a passage in Europe, where her talents made her known to established sculptors such as Hiram Powers, and she rented a studio in Piazza Barberini.
Rome was a center of sculpture at the time, and Lewis worked in the white marble readily available in the city. Most of the sculptors of the time were surrounded by a team of assistants, but fearing that they would be discredited if they did the same, Lewis chose to work alone.
The plays she produced in Italy continued to reflect her African-American and Native American heritage: one of her best-known works is called Forever Free, and depicts a man and woman emerging from slavery, the chains in the air – he’s now at Howard University. Washington Art Gallery.
At one point – it’s unclear whether it was in the United States or Rome – Lewis became Catholic and she produced devotional pieces. Two of them caught the attention of the 3rd Marquess of Bute, who scandalized Victorian Britain when he converted to Catholicism at the age of 21. fire in 1877, ”says Jessica Insley, curator of Mount Stuart. “But the bust of Christ remains, and is one of only two works by Lewis in the UK [the other is a bust of the abolitionist poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool]. He is a Renaissance-style Christ from the North, and this is important from an art history perspective because so little of his religious work survives.
Crichton-Stuart believes that although his ancestor came from a background of extreme white privilege, he identified with Lewis’ status as an “outsider” because of his Catholicism. He was also a supporter of women’s rights: he has previously threatened to resign as rector of St Andrews University unless women are admitted to his medical school. “He refused to live up to expectations. He didn’t hunt or fish, as aristocrats often did – he was an intellectual and he clearly appreciated and admired Lewis’ work, ”she says.
Lewis made regular trips to the United States from Rome, taking pieces of his sculpture to American galleries. In 1876, the work widely regarded as his best, The death of Cleopatra, was included in the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibit, with one reviewer calling it “the most notable piece of sculpture in the American section” of the exhibit. It was then lost for a century before being rediscovered in storage in Chicago. Today it is located in the Smithsonian in Washington.
Lewis left Rome for Paris in 1896, where she spent five years before moving to London. Its revival in Scotland owes much to the work of Scottish-Ghanaian artist Maud Sulter (1960-2008), who championed Lewis’s work.
The bust is on display in the lobby of Mount Stuart, which will host an online panel discussion on Lewis and his work on October 22 as part of Black History Month in Scotland.