Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The extraordinary Edmonia Lewis

Doodle by Sophie Diao

I'm absolutely thrilled to find that today's Google Doodle depicts Edmonia Lewis! I have long had my eye on Ms. Lewis for this Women in the Act project, but was never able to find an artwork depicting her at work. Frustrating! Now at last, I'm able to feature this outstanding artist.

Edmonia Lewis (1844 - 1907) was the first American woman of African American and Native American heritage to achieve international fame as a sculptor. Lewis pioneered a unique style which incorporated African American and Native American cultural themes into her Neoclassical style sculpture. Her independent and adventurous life at a time when women's lives were routinely limited was likewise avant-garde, unique and awe-inspiring.

Lewis was born in New York state to a father of Haitian descent and a mother of Mississauga Ojibwe and African American descent. After her parents’ death when she was nine years old Lewis was adopted by her maternal aunts, who supported the family by crafting and selling Ojibwe baskets and other souvenirs for tourists. Interestingly, at this period of her life Lewis went by her Native American name, Wildfire.  At age 15, Lewis enrolled in Oberlin College, and began her serious study of art. Unfortunately her time at Oberlin was fraught with disruption and outright discrimination. Because of certain charges brought against her (later dismissed) she was prevented from enrolling in her final term, and therefore was unable to receive her degree.

Undaunted, Lewis moved to Boston in 1864, determined to pursue a career as a sculptor. She apprenticed with Edward A. Brackett, a sculptor whose clients included many well-known abolitionists. Lewis worked as Brackett's apprentice until 1864, when she launched her first solo exhibition, which paid homage to the abolitionists and Civil War heroes of the day, including John Brown. Her work became very popular and her financial success allowed her to travel to Italy to further pursue her studies. "I thought I knew everything when I came to Rome, but I soon found I had everything to learn.” Edmonia Lewis (quoted in Romare Bearden'sA History of African-American Artists)

In Rome, Lewis soon joined a circle of expatriate artists and established her own studio. She began sculpting in marble, combining classicism with naturalistic observation and themes relating to African American and Native American people. Her work won respect and fame, and commanded large sums of money. She continued to receive international acclaim until her death in 1911.

Today’s Doodle depicts Lewis sculpting one of her most famous works, The Death of Cleopatra, which is on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. Her strong yet sensitively realized  portrayal of Cleopatra’s death received the highest praise from critics when it was exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. One called it “the most remarkable piece of sculpture in the American section" of the show. 

The artist Sophie Diao who created the Edmonia Lewis Doodle works at Google and freelances for the computer animation industry. She graduated from the California Institute of the Arts in 2013. Her impressive portfolio can be seen here!

Self-Portrait with dog, Sophie Diao