[Edmonia Lewis is] “…the most interesting artist working in Europe…She has great natural genius, originality, earnestness, and simple genuine taste.”
--Henry T. Tuckerman, Book of the Artists (1867, pp. 603-04)
The museum recently acquired Indian Combat, its first sculpture by Edmonia Lewis, who was the first American sculptor of color to be internationally acclaimed. She studied at Oberlin College from 1859 to 1863, and later moved to Boston, where she met sculptor Edward Brackett, who taught her to model in clay. Soon afterward she settled in Rome, Italy, where her sculptures, created in the prevailing neoclassical style, made her famous throughout the United States and Europe.
Lewis’s mother was Ojibwa (Chippewa) and African American, and her father was a free Black man from the West Indies. Both died when their daughter was young, so she was raised by relatives. According to some accounts, Lewis and her aunts wove baskets and make other crafts to sell to tourists at Niagara Falls. As an adult and fledgling sculptor, Lewis achieved success with two works shown at a Soldiers' Relief Fair at Boston in 1864: a medallion of the revolutionary abolitionist John Brown, and a bust of the Civil War hero Robert Gould Shaw. Sales were brisk and more than 100 plaster copies of the latter were sold, thus earning Lewis the necessary funds to relocate to Rome in 1866. There she joined an important colony of expatriate artists, which included fellow American Harriet Hosmer.
Lewis’s work was so well known that her studio was routinely visited by American and British travelers. For a time, she occupied the former studio of Antonio Canova, the famed Italian neoclassical sculptor. Lewis’s most popular subjects featured Native Americans, as is the case with Indian Combat, which is particularly notable for its complexity and craftsmanship.
A remarkable figure in the history of American art, Edmonia Lewis boldly breached barriers of race, ethnicity, and gender, in order to achieve her renown.
Visitors can view the sculpture in gallery 207 in the 1916 building beginning November 16.