An Unknown Photograph of Edmonia Lewis
In 2011, I walked into an antique shop in Baltimore, Maryland, and found a worn 4" x 2.5" photograph—actually a carte-de-visite, or cdv (the nineteenth-century equivalent of a visiting card or calling card)—of an unidentified black woman standing proudly and confidently in a nineteenth-century dress (Fig. i). Discovered in a box among photographs of unnamed, unidentified and forgotten African American men, women and children, it is the only known photograph of the American sculptor taken in Rome, and probably dates around 1874–76. Although no one in the shop understood my ecstatic reaction, I knew that prior to this discovery, there existed only seven known photographs of Mary Edmonia Lewis (1844–1907), all taken at the same sitting in Chicago around 1868–70, by photographer Henry Rocher (Fig. ii). This newly discovered and heretofore unknown image by the prestigious Italian studio of Fratelli D’Alessandri, Rome (photographers of Pope Pius IX and the papal court), sheds new light on the artist and her commitment to using photography to promote her image.
The Walters acquired Edmonia Lewis’s 1868 bust of Dio Lewis (no relation) (Fig. iv), through the generosity of a 2002 grant from Baltimore philanthropists Eddie and Sylvia Brown. The Lewis sculpture, and works by Edward Mitchell Bannister, Henry Ossawa Tanner and Robert Seldon Duncanson, are the first works by African American artists to enter the permanent collection of the Walters Art Museum.
Despite overwhelming odds, Edmonia Lewis found international success as a sculptor in 19th-century Rome, settling among other American expatriate artists and actors, since in her words, “The land of liberty had no room for a colored sculptor.” A curiosity for many, the diminutive Lewis (she was barely over four feet tall) was the daughter of a Haitian father of African descent and a “full-blooded Chippewa” mother. Born in Greenbush, New York, she lived with her mother’s Chippewa relatives until her half-brother sent her to Oberlin College in 1859. Her life reveals struggles and perseverance despite discrimination and prejudice.
Arriving in Rome in 1866, Edmonia Lewis occupied the former studio of the revered sculptor Antonia Canova (1757–1822), around the corner from the photography studio of Fratelli D’Alessandri on Via del Corso, No.12. She traveled between Europe and the United States several times, an arduous task for a woman, and on one trip around 1868–70 commissioned a portrait from the well-known Chicago photographer Henry Rocher. Before the young Lewis ventured to Europe in 1865, however, she occupied a studio in Boston’s Studio Building, as did photographer Augustus Marshall. In my research surrounding the Rome carte-de-visite, I have concluded that two other cdv’s of Lewis may have been taken by Boston photographers, perhaps prior to the Rocher images. The “undated carte de visite” in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society (Fig. v), taken by A. Marshall, Boston, may be the earliest known photograph of Edmonia Lewis, possibly dating to 1863–65, when Marshall and Lewis both occupied studios in the same building, before she ventured to Europe for the first time. After his visit to her Rome studio, engraver and illustrator Frank Leslie published an engraving in 1868 that is surely based on the Marshall photograph (Fig. vi).
In the Rome carte-de-visite I discovered in Baltimore in 2011, Edmonia Lewis is shown confident and self-assured in full view, standing with arms folded, instead of posed with arms leaning on a table or chair, in her lap, or standing with an arm leaning on a table, as she is in other photographs. She wears an 1870s-style dress, draped in the front, and pulled back into attractive puffs and a bustle in the back, barely visible in the photograph. Lewis’s clothing gives us an approximate date for the photograph. Since the bustle of this type did not appear in women’s fashion until around 1872, the Fratelli D’Alessandri carte-de-visite carries a post-1872 date. A devout Catholic, the artist might have had herself photographed in preparation for Pope Pius IX’s visit to her studio, which occurred sometime before his death in 1878. The artist was apparently conscious of the current fashions of the day; an account in the Boston Daily Advertiser, August 9, 1865, reported that her trunk “containing a large and elegant wardrobe, has been stolen. . .” while she was teaching African Americans in Richmond, Va.
Unless this image was appropriated from another photographer, Lewis wore a fashionable jacket when she sat for photographer F.C. Bowler, 27 Tremont Row, on a return visit to Boston. Bowler had a studio at that Boston address from 1866 to 1870. A photocopy (the original is missing) of the cdv is in the archives of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, Baltimore (Fig. vii). Notice that her ribbon tie, with two diagonal cuts at the bottom, differs from the ribbons in the Rocher and Marshall photos, which seemingly points to a different photo session.
FINDING EDMONIA LEWIS
Why were carte-de-visites of Edmonia Lewis found in Baltimore? We have no answer and can only speculate. Perhaps Lewis brought both “calling cards” with her to Baltimore in 1883 when she came to install and unveil the bas-relief Adoration of the Magi, commissioned for the “colored” Chapel of St. Mary the Virgin, Orchard Street, Baltimore. The two bottom corners of the Rome cdv have been cut as though placed in an album, a popular pastime during the nineteenth-century. The church, chapel and sculpture in Baltimore were destroyed by fire in 1947. Only a photograph of the sculpture has survived.
Researching the life and works of Edmonia Lewis has been the focus of many scholars and researchers over the years, yet more is waiting to be uncovered. Somewhere, in someone’s collection, is another unidentified photograph or unidentified sculpture. This was step one in my journey.
—Jacqueline Copeland, deputy director for audience engagement
Finding Edmonia Lewis, the result of sabbatical research, is an excerpt from a longer article currently in preparation.
Acknowledgements: I am indebted to the Walters Art Museum for allowing me to conduct my research; to Steven Jones, African American Material Culture Specialist, and Marilyn Richardson with whom I discussed the discovery of the Rome cdv in 2011. Most of all I’d like to thank two incredible women with whom I exchanged numerous ideas and emails: Joan Severa, author of Dressed for the Photographer, 1995, and My Likeness Taken, 2005, Kent State Press; and independent researcher Susan Anderson. Their insights were instrumental in my research and opened new areas of interest for me.
For more information about Edmonia Lewis, attend the Walters’ February 7, Lunch & Learn: Finding Edmonia Lewis or contact email@example.com.