Two new works on view at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA) reveal the vision and tell the fascinating story of a trailblazing nineteenth-century American artist.
Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907), born to an African American and Ojibwa mother and an Afro-Haitian father, was the first professional African American and American Indian sculptor to garner international recognition. In a period of pervasive racism, she developed a strategy for success by selecting subjects relevant to her heritage and following strict aesthetic conventions in their representation. “Hiawatha” and “Minnehaha” (1868), companion marble sculptures purchased by the UMFA earlier this year, exemplify her approach. Both objects are on view now in the museum’s award-winning exhibition “American and Regional Art: Mythmaking and Truth-Telling,” drawn largely from the permanent collection.
“Hiawatha” and “Minnehaha” are Lewis’s depictions of characters from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem “The Song of Hiawatha” (1855). The poem was an immediate success that provided a fictional pre-history of Euro-American settlement. Longfellow’s tale is one of assimilation and acculturation, in which the Ojibwa (also called Chippewa) protagonist Hiawatha ultimately converts to Christianity with the arrival of Catholic missionaries. This narrative, which reinforced misguided notions of the “vanishing American Indian,” aligned with the 19th-century national myth of “Manifest Destiny,” the belief that westward settlement was the divinely ordained mission of Protestant Americans of northwestern European descent.
Lewis’s creation of these intimately scaled and reasonably priced sculptures speaks to both her clever construction of identity and the problematic presumptions of patrons at the time. Contemporary depictions of American Indian men and women more closely resembled those of western European models, and Lewis met her patrons’ expectations in this regard. Nevertheless, her experiences as an artist of American Indian ancestry were portrayed in the press as having informed her interpretation of the poem, a characterization Lewis herself may have encouraged, according to scholar Kirsten Pai Buick.
Lewis’s decision to become a sculptor, an artistic discipline dominated by men, was not without its challenges. Lewis created “Hiawatha” and “Minnehaha” works in Rome, where she had traveled in 1865 to join a group of expatriate American women sculptors who sought access to marble deposits, skilled carvers and a hospitable atmosphere. Moreover, the “Eternal City’s” abundance of Ancient Roman, Renaissance and Baroque statuary stimulated their creativity. “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 told The New York Times in 1878. “The land of liberty had no room for a colored sculptor.” Lewis’s life and career were recently featured in The New York Times’ “Overlooked” series of unreported obituaries of important historical figures.
Lewis’s work, held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, is rarely available for purchase, and the acquisition of these sculptures is a boon to the UMFA’s collection. Their display is part of the museum’s ongoing effort to feature the work of more underrepresented artists throughout permanent and temporary exhibitions, including not only the American and regional galleries but also the modern and contemporary galleries, which are currently devoted exclusively to the work of female artists.