Why “Discovering” Edmonia Lewis?

Two simple reasons:

(1) Edmonia Lewis

Edmonia Lewis deserves to be better known. This website is partly about lifting up this Black and Indigenous female artist from the 19th century–but it is also about contributing to making it the norm rather than the Black History Month or Native American Heritage Month or Women’s History Month exception to talk about the impact and the role of Black, Indigenous, or women artists and “makers” on American and world history across the centuries. And precisely because we know so little about Edmonia Lewis’ personal life, the history of race and racism in the US (which should always be front and center in the way we think about history) is key to understanding her life and her art. 19th-century constructions of “womanhood” and limitations on what women could do in and with the arts are, of course, also important, but those have been more widely explored and discussed.

Edmonia Lewis died in 1907, forgotten by the art world, but she has been rediscovered by art historians and biographers in recent decades. They have insisted that she was important as an artist in her own right–and also when it comes to the effort to include art history when we say that Black and Native American history is our history. Art-historical research is indispensable to understanding nineteenth-century art and visual culture, and it has focused for too long on art made by white men. I am deeply grateful to the scholars who have been pushing against this huge bias towards the canon of already-famous art by white men, and who have worked hard to give Edmonia Lewis her due, as the only professional Black and Indigenous female sculptor of the nineteenth century. Without them, she would not have shown up as a Google Doodle, in the New York Times‘ “Overlooked No More” series of belated obituaries, or, most recently, in a young adult graphic novel series called “Seen: True Stories of Marginalized Trailblazers” (see more about these recent mentions on my Resources page). With this website, I am building on this work, hoping to contribute to our understanding of Lewis, and simply to give this sculptor and her art more visibility.

(2) Discovery

Discovering new things is not about being some intrepid explorer who marches in triumphantly and takes possession, Columbus-style. The act of discovering or uncovering I have in mind invites reflection on what we didn’t know before and why. I have a recent Masters’ degree in Art History, but only after I had completed my thesis did I realize how little I knew about writers and artists from the 19th century who were Black or Brown, and to what extent I had left it to others to research them and spread the word about them (at the risk of more white-centering: learn more here if you are interested). My ignorance was partly of my own making, but the fact that Edmonia Lewis and other Black artists were not on my radar and that I didn’t think it was “my place” to search for them also says a lot about what gets taught and doesn’t get taught in art history and cultural history–how systemic, institutionalized racism continues to marginalize the voices and (important for art history) visions of Black, Indigenous People of Color, and discourages so many from exploring these voices and visions.

With this site, I hope to contribute to changing that. But I needed to find a way of doing so that acknowledges that I am not an expert, but a knowledge seeker who started from a place of not-knowing, and of humility. The process of learning and digesting new ideas I embarked only started a few months ago, in the summer of 2020, when Black activists in many organizations and from many disciplines in academia pushed me to fully realize how systemic racism impacts what we learn, what we get curious about, and what we pass on to others, formally and informally. I hope I have found a way to share what I have learned that avoids claiming expertise where I have none. The website is meant to emphasize both the joys and the lessons of discovering a wealth of new ideas and information–and the fact that here is always more to learn, which is also why this website is a work in progress, with several parts unfinished or including open questions I hope to find answers to as I keep learning more.

Important disclaimer: Edmonia Lewis had Native American (Ojibwa) ancestors on her mother’s side. This page addresses primarily her Black heritage and her status as a Black sculptor, a female sculptor, and as an African-American abroad. This is partly because there is little to no documentation about her Ojibwa heritage, so the research on this is sparse, but it is partly also because I am only beginning to learn about the relevant Native American history. Some thoughts about this big omissions are in Discovering More.

Your Turn:

While my goal is to spread the word on Edmonia Lewis and to be honest about the work I haven’t yet done and the things I don’t know yet, I also hope to make you curious about the gaps in your own knowledge and to encourage you to find out more yourself.
You might take this website as a starting point to delve deeper into Edmonia Lewis’ art, to research other Black artists, or–if you want to–to pick apart what you are reading here.

I welcome corrections, lessons, arguments, and questions; they are the way that I expand my vision and sometimes the only way I will become aware of my own blind spots. Edmonia Lewis was a huge blind spot for me until 2020, and with this project, I want to show you what I have just been learning to see–as long as we are on the same page that this is an ongoing process subject to expansion, correction, and change. I would be grateful for your suggestions.

Every page allows comments once you log in once and get “approved”–a WordPress mechanism to keep the bots out, NOT a way for me to collect or pass on e-mail addresses! There is a contact button on the site’s homepage to e-mail me directly if you would prefer; please get in touch.

4 thoughts on “Why “Discovering” Edmonia Lewis?”

  1. I accidentally came across a marble bust of Lt. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw of the Ma. 54th Regiment at the African American Museum on Joy St. There is a small picture and write up about Edmona Lewis. As the second president of the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail I wanted to learn more.

    I discovered she not only created this sculpture of Robert Gould Shaw, but she witnessed him and his 54th march down Beacon St. to fight in the South..
    She was commissioned by St. Augustus Gaudens to do the castings for the heads of the soldiers depicted in this famous Memorial.
    I don’t know if she did the sculpture of the heads, assume it was her studio that did the castings and St.Gaudens the sculptures? Would love to know.
    I am amazed that she was only 18-19, had her own studio, worked for St.Gaudens and a year later left Boston for Rome. Why? Can you confirm the part she played in this famous Memorial.

    1. Hi Carol, based on what I have read, Edmonia Lewise did see his march down Beacon St. and I’d be happy to look through some of my sources to find out a bit more and give you page references. But I am a bit confused about the St. Gaudens connection. The 54th Regiment memorial was not commissioned until the 1880s and erected in 1897, long after Edmonia Lewis had left the States–in the 1890s she was active in Paris, and we know little about her art production during that time. Can you tell me where you found the reference to her casting the heads for the soldiers? I have never come across that but would be happy to check whether I can verify this. I will be e-mailing you my address, so look out for that. Thank you for reading. Also, I would like to say that although she did claim to have been born in 1844 (on her passport application) it seems very likely that she was just a bit older, more like in her early 20s, when she started her studio in Boston. Still impressive!

  2. I want to thank you for this website. I am taking art at NYC Parks Department Program. I became curious about Black artists in the 19th century. I took art history in college and never black artists mentioned. Thank you for sharing this information.

    1. Thank you so much! It’s awesome that you are taking those art classes. I am taking an intro to printmaking class right now. I hear you about art history! Things are changing, but rather slowly. Many textbooks for intro/survey classes are still only mentioning Black artists and other artists of color in passing–that was still true when I took my first art history class in 2018! But many scholars in the field are now working on transforming the field.

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