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Edmonia Lewis: A Queer Life

Jun 13, 2024

In the first of a two-part series on the world of sculptor Edmonia Lewis, learn how a Black and Indigenous artist rose to prominence in mid-nineteenth century Boston, then fled the stifling social confines of New England to join an all-women expat community in Rome.

The neoclassical sculptor Mary Edmonia Wildfire Lewis rose to prominence as an artist in the United States and Italy in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Black and Indigenous artist—described by some historians as queer—achieved international fame despite the prejudices she faced. Though she died mostly forgotten, in recent years her work has gained a new appreciation; her statue, Hiawatha’s Marriage, sold for $1.6 million at auction in 2023. 

Edmonia Lewis was born in the mid-1840s to a father of African descent and an Ojibwe mother who was a member the Mississauga First Nation. In an 1866 interview, Lewis described her mother as a “wild Indian” and her father as a gentleman’s servant. “Mother often left her home and wandered with her people, whose habits she could not forget,” she recalled, “and thus we her children were brought up in the same wild manner.” Both of her parents died before she was ten years old, and she and her brother went to live with their aunts who made and sold Ojibwe wares, such as baskets, moccasins, and other trinkets, to tourists at Niagara Falls. In the early 1850s, Lewis’ brother struck it rich in the California Gold Rush and used some of the money to provide her with an education at a time when few schools allowed non-White students and even fewer accepted non-White women. 

Lewis attended New York Central College between 1856 and 1858 and Oberlin College from 1859 to 1863, both centers of abolitionist activity. Her tenure at the schools ended badly. At New York Central College, she was too “wild” and, she recalled, despite getting good grades, “they could do nothing with me.” At Oberlin, two White classmates falsely accused her of poisoning them. Long-simmering racial tensions in the town boiled over and a mob kidnapped Lewis, stripped her naked, raped her, beat her nearly to death, and left her in the snow to die. Instead of investigating the attack, local officials arrested Lewis. She was exonerated and returned to school, only to be falsely accused again, this time for stealing art supplies. Oberlin’s administration used these incidents as a reason to bar her from returning. (Oberlin College posthumously awarded her a bachelor’s degree in 2022.)

After leaving Oberlin, Lewis moved to Boston and became an artist. Her brother helped her establish a studio on Tremont Street and she held her first exhibition in 1864. She found success among abolitionists due to anti-slavery themes in her sculpting, including busts of abolitionists John Brown and Robert Gould Shaw. However, she was regularly reminded of her race and difference: Her supporters used her as evidence of their progressive views, while her critics disparaged her as a poor artist who gained attention because abolitionists needed a token figure.

Exhausted by her experiences in Boston, Lewis moved to Rome and joined a circle of women artists connected through actress Charlotte Cushman. Scholars who speculate that Lewis herself was queer do so due to her affiliation with Cushman’s expatriate community in Rome, composed mainly of lesbian sculptors and painters. In fact, we know almost nothing concrete about Lewis’s sexuality. She never married and there is no documentation of her having had any romantic relationships, except one cryptic 1873 announcement in The Boston Globe that “Miss Edmonia Lewis, the colored sculptress, is engaged to be married.” The name of her fiancé was not reported and there is no record that the marriage ever took place. 

While her association with Cushman and her circle suggest Lewis may have had an interest in women, we will likely never know how Lewis thought about her sexual identity or romantic relationships. This is a common challenge when researching queer history and something historians must navigate with nuance and great care. We don’t want to erase queerness simply because we lack documentary evidence—which often never existed or was destroyed to protect the safety or reputation of the people in question—but we also don’t want to make tenuous claims about sexuality absent evidence. What we can say about Lewis is that she lived a life outside of the social norms of her time, a life that, in its essence, was queer.

We also know that in Rome, surrounded by queer women artists, Lewis thrived. “I was practically driven to Rome in order to obtain the opportunities for art culture, and to find a social atmosphere where I was not constantly reminded of my color,” Lewis said. “The land of liberty had no room for a colored sculptor.” Her fame earned her high commissions, she held wildly successful exhibitions, and her studio became a tourist attraction. It may have been the first time since childhood that Lewis felt like she was back among her people and no longer an outsider.

Poet Anna Quincy Waterston—whose father owned Quincy House in Quincy, Massachusetts, from 1784 to 1864—was one of Lewis’s patrons in Rome. Learn more about Waterston and her artistic and intellectual siblings, nicknamed “The Articulate Sisters,” on a tour of Quincy House this summer.

Written by Dr. Alissa Butler, Study Center Manager