TODAY’S GOOGLE DOODLE celebrates artist Edmonia Lewis (1844?-1907). She is considered the first black woman to receive international recognition in the fine art world as a sculptor.
The Feb. 1 tribute marks the beginning of Black History Month. The Google logo is executed in script with a painted stroke. The doodle by Sophie Diao depicts Lewis standing before a block of marble. She is chipping away to form a female figure. The illustration references the artist’s 1876 sculpture “The Death Cleopatra.” The work is in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., where it is currently on view in a special exhibition of 184 works by African American artists through Feb. 28.
Born in Upstate New York in what is now the city of Rensselaer, Lewis’s father was a free black man of Haitian descent and her mother was Native American and African American. Orphaned as a young child, she was raised by her maternal aunts.
She entered Oberlin College in 1859 when she was only 15. Lewis was exposed to art at the college, a major abolitionist hub that admitted African American students and women, one of the first U.S. institutions of higher education to do so. Amid serious problems and accusations, she left school before graduating. She moved to Boston where she sought further instruction and studied with sculptor Edward A. Brackett.
Her early works paid tribute to Civil War heroes and abolitionists such as John Brown. Eventually finding some success, Lewis traveled to Europe, visiting London, Paris and Florence before settling in Rome where she was ensconced in a community of expat artists.
She spent most of her career in Rome, establishing her own studio. Working with marble in a neoclassical style, she explored naturalism, religious themes, and began to portray black and Native American figures. She later died in London.
In honor of Black History Month, Google produced a new online exhibition of Lewis’s work, part of its Google Arts & Culture initiative. The sculptures featured are from the Smithsonian’s collection. The American Art Museum owns eight by Lewis, including the Cleopatra work. CT
IMAGE: Above right, Edmonia Lewis via National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Museum Label: “Edmonia Lewis often carved portraits of her patrons, either for a commission or as an expression of thanks. This piece depicts the poet Anna Quincy Waterston who, with her husband Reverend Robert C. Waterston, helped Lewis raise the money to pay for the first marbles she carved in Rome. The sculpture shows an elegant woman with a composed expression and a hint of a smile. The elaborate hairstyle and decorative clothing suggest a lady of wealth and importance in nineteenth-century society.”
“Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History’s Black and Indian Subject” is a comprehensive examination of the artist’s life and career. “A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present” dedicates more than 23 pages to Edmonia Lewis. Harry Henderson, who co-authored the volume with Romare Bearden, later published, “The Indomitable Spirit of Edmonia Lewis,” a narrative biography of the artist. Earlier this month, “Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis,” was published for young readers.