I was practically driven to Rome,” Edmonia Lewis told The New York Times in 1878 upon her return to the Manhattan church of the Rev. Henry Highland Garnet. Ms. Lewis said she had been driven away “in order to obtain the opportunities for art culture, and to find a social atmosphere where I was not constantly reminded of my color. The land of liberty had no room for a colored sculptor.” Fifteen years earlier, Lewis had visited Reverend Garnet’s church under more desperate circumstances. At that time, she had been driven from Oberlin College, a place known for its abolitionist sentiments where she was blindsided by prejudice and a traumatizing assault.
In their book “The Indomitable Spirit of Edmonia Lewis,” father-son writing team Harry and Albert Henderson speculate that Frederick Douglass, who knew of Ms. Lewis’ troubles at Oberlin, might have directed her to seek out Reverend Garnet, a Presbyterian minister. With the Civil War raging and consuming New York in strife, Garnet wrote a letter of introduction and sent Ms. Lewis to the abolitionist stronghold of Boston, where she dedicated herself to becoming a sculptor.
Her first notable piece was a bust of Robert Gould Shaw, the young abolitionist who died a hero while leading the all-black 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment in the Second Battle of Fort Wagner. Ms. Lewis paid tribute to Shaw in classical style, his signature features and wisp of a goatee blending with a regal, stoic pose to echo depictions of luminaries of ancient Greece and Rome, with the words “Martyr to Freedom” carved on the pedestal.
The work signaled the emergence of an important new talent, yet it met with objections from a leading supporter of Ms. Lewis, who saw her tribute to Boston’s hero as presumptuous, given her station in life and lack of experience. Recognizing the limits even of the Boston abolitionists to open their minds to her work, she set her sights on the Grand Tour common to artists of the day, with Italy and exposure to its classical art and architecture as the ultimate destination.
“I think there’s a deep sense of identity in Edmonia, which is beyond color,” says Rome-based art historian Elizabeth Lev. Referring to the combination of discrimination, lowered expectations and suspicions of false praise, Ms. Lev says, “She came here to get the pros or cons of the question of her color out of the way…She comes here to try to remove that from the equation and to really see who she is as an artist, which is a profound, deep calling in her.”
Ms. Lev will be giving a virtual talk on Edmonia Lewis on Tuesday, Feb. 16, at 3 p.m., hosted by the Sheen Center for Thought & Culture in honor of Black History Month. An African American who grew up in Boston yet has spent most of her adult life in Rome, Ms. Lev equates her grasp of Edmonia Lewis to other figures whose life stories have spoken to her, such as Caterina Sforza, about whom she wrote the book “Tigress of Forli,” saying, “I could understand her. I could look at this life and understand the decisions she makes.”
Edmonia Lewis was both African American and Native American, and evidence suggests she was raised with at least some Catholic influence, which may have planted the seed for her full conversion to the faith while in Rome. And this is yet another way her life speaks to Ms. Lev, who says of her own experiences in Rome, “I had a huge reversion experience due to the people that surrounded me and due to the art I was in contact with.”
Ms. Lev promises her talk will go beyond mere biography of Edmonia Lewis to explore layers of meaning underpinning the artist’s work. “I am extremely interested in the work and what it is that makes her a force to be reckoned with,” she says.
Among her objectives within the talk, Ms. Lev intends to highlight a series of sculptures that speak to Edmonia Lewis’ identity and intentions as an artist, including works that address slavery and freedom and offer commentary upon American society and its ideals. Within that series of works, she will bring into focus the fascinating story of the statue that was the crowning achievement of Ms. Lewis’ career, how it was featured on the world stage and then lost for over a hundred years, being discarded and nearly destroyed before its most unlikely recovery. This work represents the culmination of Ms. Lewis’ attempts to speak to the most important ideas of the day through her art and to claim her rightful place among creative intellectuals, an effort that faced opposition at every turn and one in which she achieved a coup of artistic messaging not even fully understood until the work’s rediscovery a century later.
Addressing the artist’s drive to make her mark on the world, Ms. Lev says, “Art is communication, and it is a communication that for a certain period of time was jealously guarded by people who thought that kind of communication belongs to a certain rank of person…So this is a woman, Edmonia Lewis, who understands that art is communication. She battles to be able to use this communication media…. The portraits she chooses to do are portraits of people she wants to speak to…and this woman definitely had something to say.”
The great orator Reverend Garnet was said to have trembled with emotion as he spoke in honor of Edmonia Lewis’ return to his Manhattan church in 1878. He recalled sending her off to that uncertain future in Boston 15 years earlier during the Civil War and exhibited profound joy over the success she had achieved ever since. She was on her way back to Italy after one of her regular trips to the states, where many of her patrons resided. She was at the height of her career and conscious of the way in which people viewed her as a representative figure. She seems to have known that her success could play some part in changing attitudes in the art world with regard to race, and with regard to the way America was viewed by the European establishment.
Ms. Lev says, “She may have been an expat, but she was an American. She made a point of telling American stories, and portraying great Americans, and talking about American situations. So I think despite the fact that America had many flaws…and they seemed impossible to overcome in her day, she saw fit to show America’s best face. She goes to another country as an American and says, ‘Look what we can produce...’”
In an age when the European art establishment viewed American artists as inherently less skilled, Ms. Lev notes that Edmonia Lewis did not hesitate to create reproductions of Michelangelo’s work. “She makes a lot of copies of Michelangelo, was not afraid to get in the ring with Michelangelo. So, I think, what a great statement about what America could be.”