Just in time for the start of African American History Month, the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts
has put on display their latest acquisition, Edmonia Lewis's, The Marriage of Hiawatha, 1872. Marble. This statue was purchased through the generosity of an anonymous donor.
Now on display in the lobby of the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, The Marriage of Hiawatha is a white, marble statue reminiscent of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture. The piece was inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 1855 epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha. The poem recounts the life of mythical Ojibwa hero Hiawatha and the lessons he taught his people. Longfellow's Hiawatha embraced the changes brought by white men as leading to a better way of life for Native Americans. This romantic story reflected that era's stereotypes of native people as a vanishing race of noble savages.
The poem's popularity and Longfellow's celebrity ensured public interest in the series of sculptures Edmonia Lewis based on the story. Both Lewis's neoclassical style and the poem emphasized common human characteristics and the social norms of the day. In a time when a female sculptor of African American and Native American ancestry was a curiosity, Lewis's depiction of Native American subjects captured the interest of the press and potential patrons.
Edmonia Lewis's sculpture, Marriage of Hiawatha depicts the marriage of Hiawatha to his lover, Minnehaha. As typical of neoclassical artists, Lewis used physical characteristics such as wide foreheads, and prominent noses to communicate 19th-century ideas of nobility and intelligence. Gentle expressions in women and protective stances by men conveyed the accepted gender roles of the day.
Lewis's Minnehaha is an idealized image of a Native American character invented by a white American author and sculpted by an African/Native American artist in a style inspired by ancient Greek and Roman art. This puzzling riddle seems a fitting reflection of the complex, enigmatic life of Edmonia Lewis.
Edmonia Lewis was the first African American sculptor to gain an international reputation. She was one of a group of American female sculptors who practiced their art in Rome. The city was a great center for sculpture, close to the classical art that inspired those who worked in the neoclassical style and the marble that was their material of choice.
Little is known of Lewis's life. Biographical details are scarce and the artist's own narrative of her life varied over time. What is known reflects a remarkable woman who overcame many obstacles to become an artist. Lewis's father, a Haitian American, died soon after her birth. She recounted a youth with her Ojibwa mother's people, roaming the woods. After her mother's death, an older brother arranged and paid for her schooling, including Oberlin College in Ohio.
Leaving school for Boston in 1862, Lewis studied briefly with sculptor Edward Brackett, her only formal instruction in sculpture. She found patrons and sponsors among Boston's abolitionist community, creating and selling portrait busts and medallions of antislavery champions John Brown, Senator Charles Sumner and Robert Gould Shaw among others. With funds from these sales, Lewis traveled to England, France and Italy, finally settling in Rome.
In Rome, Lewis's studio became a stop for visiting American and European tourists. While most sculptors of the day hired carvers to recreate their clay models in marble, Lewis carved her own early pieces to prevent skeptics from suggesting the work was not her own. While successful in her time, both the artist and her work dropped from sight as the neoclassical style fell from fashion. The last mention of Edmonia Lewis that can be found was in 1911.
Today, there is a renewed interest in Edmonia Lewis's life, career and work, as her success not only as a woman, but an African/Native American woman, during a time of social revolution, is nothing short of remarkable.
The Kalamazoo Institute of Arts adds Marriage of Hiawatha to its collection of African American art, a collection that currently includes more than 180 pieces by artists like Jacob Lawrence, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Lorna Simpson and Elizabeth Catlett. The KIA welcomes visitors to admire the beauty of Edmonia Lewis's work, among the rest of the exquisite art on display in its exhibitions and permanent collection.