Mary Edmonia Lewis was a 19th century American sculptor, born to an African American father and Chippewa Indian mother in 1844. Her mother named her “Wildfire, a true description of her spirit that spurred her to thrive in her oeuvre d’art. Her atrocious experience with anti abolitionist vigilantes in Ohio where she was accused of poisoning two classmates at Oberlin College, beaten and arrested compelled her to move to Boston and pursue a career as a sculptor. The hostile episodes impelled her to create sculptures paying homage to abolitionist and heroes of the Civil War. Her passion brought about local favourable outcome and her decision to move to Rome, Italy was now viable. She achieved great success and captured the attention of patrons of art and international art press.
Her devotion to social change was the canon behind her powerful carvings to declare equality, freedom, honour legacies of women as well as embracing her racial/ethnic heritage. Her way of life led to the conjecture about her sexual orientation by historians, which was based on her close friendship with “Charlotte Cushman and her lover Harriet Hosmer as well as other feminists in their artistic lesbian circle”, being single and her “androgynous style of dress.”
Her sculpture, ” Marriage of Hiawatha” to his lover, Minnehaha, intelligently depicts dignity and spiritual nobility through neoclassical rendering of features, wide forehead, protective eyes, proud expression and the kind gaze of Minnehaha. The Roman draping and togas as their garments blended with native accessories and the coiffeur intertwine cultures and tribes. The work of art was inspired by a fictional character in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow‘ poem “The Song of Hiawatha” and ancient Greek & Roman art.
Later in her career, she was commissioned to sculpt a bust of U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant. Edmonia Lewis was the epitome of a purposeful woman who with determination and passion became a celebrated artist.