Edmonia Lewis

Cat. no. 40. Edmonia Lewis. Mississauga and African American, c. 1844-1907. The Old Arrow Maker, modeled 1866, carved c. 1872. Marble. 10 x 14 x 14 in. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Brentonville, Arkansas, 200815. Photo: Courtesy Sotheby’s.


I’m America Meredith [Speaking Cherokee] I am Cherokee and Swedish. I am enrolled in the Cherokee Nation. I’m just so grateful that Edmonia Lewis is in this art show because she’s the first Native woman to ever make it in the international art world. She was a success. But she was also the first African American woman to make it in the international art world. Her family was both Canadian and from New York. And she became orphaned- she and her brother. So she was raised by her aunts, and she was Ojibwe, so she grew up in that environment. And then her brother, he ended up becoming quite wealthy going west to Montana in the Gold Rush days. He was a barber. Her brother was able to help fund her – to send her to Oberlin College.

She has this incredible academic, 19th century art education. And her passion was sculpture. She wanted to go to Italy. So this was completely her dream, her desire. And was able ultimately to fulfill her dream, and go to Italy.

She spoke Ojibwe, she didn’t really ever quite become proficient in English, but she become completely fluent in Italian. And she maintained a studio. At the height of her career she hired nine assistants. Ulysses S. Grant, the President, when he went to Rome, he commissioned her to make a sculpture. So she really made a name for herself, being a Black, Native woman sculptor.

In the 1896 exhibition in Philadelphia, she created this massive, incredible piece of the death of Cleopatra. It didn’t win, but it was like the talk of the show. So this woman was really incredible and very well-known during her life-time. So she was incredibly savvy, incredibly successful in her own timeframe. And she was written about during her timeframe. And then what happens so much with women artists is even thought they are successful in their timeframe, they don’t fit the narrative, so they start getting erased. I think it’s important to be keenly aware that many women artists were successful, but then being written into the art historical cannon is a completely different story.


Edmonia Lewis ogii-maamiikwendaan Henry Wadsworth Longfellowan gaa-ozhibii’aminid Hiawatha Onagamowin miidash ozhitood Gete-Baawaniked. Lewis gii-daa Rome apii ningoding-midaaswaak-niishwaaswaaki izhiseg miinawaa oshki-ezhi-mookodaasod, onzaam
mookodaagaazojin naasab inaabandaminid gaye gegaa niibawinid babaamenimangwaa. Lewis waabanda’aan wenji-biizikawaanid Bwaanimakokaanzh- naabikawaaganan miinawaa biizikaminid Anishinaabe-pashkweginimakizinan gaye gibide’ebizonan mii aawinid Anishinaabeg.



Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Song of Hiawatha” inspired Edmonia Lewis to carve The Old Arrow Maker. Lewis, a neoclassical sculptor based in Rome in the 1800s, lent tension to the scene by sculpting both figures looking in the same direction, almost poised to rise. While their clothing and adornment are generalized, Lewis pays homage to Native American ancestry through hints—such as the Dakota bear-claw necklace and Anishinaabe deer-hide moccasins and vests.