Between 1866 and 1872, Edmonia Lewis carved a number of cabinet-sized busts of Hiawatha and his ill-fated lover Minnehaha, inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha. While Hiawatha was a real leader of the Iroquois Confederacy, the character in the poem is a fictive figure inspired by diverse Native American traditions, whose personification contributed to the idea of the “noble savage” as expressed in nineteenth-century literature. Wadsworth’s Hiawatha had Ojibwe (or Chippewa) roots, the same indigenous group from which Lewis descended. Her carving method draws from her experience growing up with her mother’s Chippewa people as well as Rome’s classicizing influence. The overall shape of Hiawatha’s head is idealized, demonstrating the influence of Classical and Renaissance sculptures that Lewis would have seen during her travels in Rome.
About the artist
The sculptor Edmonia Lewis (1845-1907) spent much of her career in Rome, where she was part of a vibrant group of American expatriate women sculptors. The daughter of a Chippewa (Ojibwe) mother and African American father, Lewis spent her early years living among her mother’s tribe near Albany, New York. From 1860 to 1863, Lewis attended Oberlin College, where despite institutional support for coeducational and abolitionist education, she faced both racial and gender discrimination. After leaving Oberlin, she found success as a sculptor in Boston, and funded her first trip to Europe through sales of plaster portrait busts of abolitionists.
Lewis travelled to Rome in 1866 and remained there for the majority of her career, finding the city more conducive to producing marble sculpture and less prejudiced than the United States. Although some of Lewis’s work represented ancient and biblical subjects like those on display in Rome, she became better known for her sculpture depicting African American and Native American subjects, often revealing a classicizing influence.