Casting the First Stone
Her race, sex, and a murder mystery were all factors blocking the career of Edmonia Lewis, a 19th-century black American sculptress struggling against the odds at the height of the US Civil War, yet she succeeded in overcoming all three. Here Patricia Cleveland Peck tells her remarkable story.
One cold February morning in 1866 Henry Wreford, art critic and correspondent in Rome for London's Art Journal and Athenaeum magazines, knocked on the door of a studio on the via Gregoriana once occupied by Canova and happened upon 'an interesting novelty'. This was twenty-two-year-old Miss Edmonia Lewis,
... a lady of colour ... the only lady of her race in the United States who has thus applied herself to study and practice the sculptural art
Edmonia, however, had arrived in Italy just two months before and did not yet have a body of work to show Mr Wreford, so her feelings as the critic entered her empty studio can be imagined. Here she was being given an opportunity to impress the international art world but how was she to make the most of it? With only diree pieces of finished work and two groups representing Hiawatha and Minehaha half-modelled, her studio looked bare. So she would play her unique card. She would tell Mr Wreford her life story .
'My mother,' she said (and Mr Wreford quoted her 'almost in her own words' in his March Athenaeum article)