Where we left her in our last post, Edmonia Lewis was beginning her solo career in Boston by sculpting busts of famous abolitionists. If you missed part one of this blog post, be sure to check it out here before reading the continuation!
After finding success in Boston, Lewis was able to afford to travel to Rome. There she worked with Hiram Powers, another influential American sculptor, and soon found herself established in a circle of expatriate sculptors in Rome who were dedicated to abolition. She found living in Rome to be liberating in more ways than one. First of all, there was markedly less racism in Italy and so she was properly allowed to flourish there. Secondly, being Catholic, she found the religious environment to be refreshing and comforting.
Lewis drew inspiration from the Classical artwork all around her and began to emulate some aspects of it in her own work. For example, she began to dress her subjects in the flowing robes common in Classical artwork rather than in modern clothes.
She was also adamant about doing her own sculpting. It was the typical practice of the day for a sculptor to make a model in clay or wax and then for Italian marble-workers to carve out the shape of the figure from the stone. But Lewis carved her own marble to disprove skeptical colleagues who thoughts she didn’t do her own work. The criticism for her work was overwhelmingly positive, however, and she was making large amounts of money from selling her sculptures and taking commissions.
In the 1870s, Lewis showed her work in exhibitions in America again, such as in the Centennial Exposition in 1876 in Philadelphia. It was at the exhibition where she showed Death of Cleopatra, which was revolutionary in its frank portrayal of the Queen’s dishevelment in death. It also, unlike other depictions of the event, did not show Cleopatra attended by slaves, a choice in line with Lewis’ previous themes of emancipation. Cleopatra received mixed reviews, with many praising the work and others feeling scandalized by its undignified portrayal of the figure.
In the 1880s, Lewis returned to Rome, where she sculpted altarpieces and other religious works before moving to London. She lived in England in relative silence and didn’t appear so prominently in the art world after her move. According to her biography, Lewis never married or even had any romantic relationships which were known. However, she did announce in 1873 that she was engaged but, given as a wedding never took place and nothing is known about her fiancé, many think that this is another “white lie” of hers.
Lewis passed away in London in 1907 and was buried in the same city. There had been rumors that she had died in Rome instead or that she had in fact died years earlier in San Francisco. I think that these conspiracy theories would have amused her, given how she liked to embellish the story of her life. In 2017, her grave was restored and her place marked with an impressive stone slab, where it had previously not honored her.
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