About the artwork
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), the most popular and successful of 19th-century American poets, was in Rome between December 1868 and February 1869. This marble bust, made in the early 1870s, was based upon observations and drawings of the 62-year old Longfellow, made in the streets of Rome by the sculptor Edmonia Lewis. Longfellow's brother Samuel described how it came about:
‘Miss Lewis has been making a bust (of Mr Longfellow). Her studio is near the Constantin Hotel where they are, and she gets glimpses of him here and there - went out to meet him and headed him off round corners and when he went to her studio one day he found a quite respectable likeness of his brother. And the rest of the family went in and then the nose being a failing feature Mr Longfellow sat to her and they think it now quite a creditable performance, better I think he said than many likenesses of him’
Longfellow's success rested in part upon his popular poems about the life of Native Americans, most famously his ‘Song of Hiawatha’ (1855) recounting the tragic romance of a Chippewa man, Hiawatha, and a Dakotah woman, Minnehaha. At the time that this marble bust was carved Edmonia Lewis was also working on a statue entitled ‘Hiawatha's Marriage’ and had earlier also made a statue of Minnehaha and her father entitled ‘The old Indian arrow maker and his daughter’.
Making a bust of Longfellow was opportunistic but not as commercially successful as Lewis perhaps hoped. Only two versions are known to have been made. One is at Harvard University. The Walker’s version has only recently entered the collections, having been accepted by HM Government in lieu of inheritance tax and allocated to the Walker. It was made for Henry Robertson Sandbach (1807-1895), a Liverpool merchant whose extensive sculpture collection included many pieces that can now be seen in the sculpture gallery on the ground floor of the Walker. It was obtained from Henry Robertson Sandbach’s descendants. Lewis’ original clay bust of Longfellow, now lost or destroyed, remained on view in her Rome studio, and was shown at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876.
Edmonia Lewis (c1843-c1909) was the daughter of a Native American mother of Chippewa ancestry. She was described rather fancifully by one critic as ‘descended from Minnehaha’. Her father, of African ancestry, was from the West Indies, probably Haiti. She grew up in the Great Lakes region of the United States and also in Newark, where according to her own biography she sold Indian ‘souvenirs’ to tourists. Details of her earlier life are uncertain due to her later propensity to romanticise her youth. In 1859 she enrolled in Oberlin College, Ohio, the first college in the United States to admit both African American men and women. She studied composition, literature, botany, algebra, the Bible and drawing. During her time at the college she was accused of poisoning two white classmates with an aphrodisiac. Although the charges were dismissed for lack of sufficient evidence, and although she was also subsequently accused without sufficient evidence of theft, Lewis was not permitted to complete her course.
In 1863 Edmonia Lewis moved to Boston - the centre of abolitionism, women's rights, and other social reform movements. She studied sculpture under the neo-classical sculptor Edward Bracket and became involved in abolitionist circles, leading members of which helped advance her career. Her early work commemorated abolitionists and heroes of the Civil War. For example, she made medallions of John Brown, the hero of Harper’s Ferry. She also made a bust of Colonel Robert Shaw, a white leader of an all Negro regiment. Many plaster casts of this bust were sold to raise funds for black union soldiers and apparently to finance her subsequent stay in Rome.
In Rome Lewis studied under Harriet Hosmer, another successful female American sculptor. She continued to obtain commissions from Boston patrons. Her first Rome subject piece, now lost, was entitled ‘The Freedwoman on first hearing of her Liberty’. Soon after setting up in Rome, Edmonia Lewis consciously shifted the emphasis of her origins from African American to Native American and changed her subject matter to exploit a growing public demand for statues of Indian characters in Longfellow’s poems - as well as also tapping into a developing market for feminist subjects. Lewis was much written about in British and American magazines; the ‘novelty’ of her origins being dwelt upon and with a rather condescending tone being adopted at times towards her achievements.
Lewis’ reputation declined during the late 1870s. Even the date of her death remains uncertain. Neo-classical sculpture became very unfashionable by the early 1900’s and in common with other statues in this style Lewis’ sculpture was discarded and ignored. One major sculpture of 'Cleopatra', now in The Smithsonian National Museum of American Art, was even sold off by an earlier owner to go on the grave of a horse of the same name. During the last two decades however there has been an increased interest in Lewis’ work as part of attempts to identify and celebrate the achievements of 19th-century Native American and African American artists and writers. Neo-classical sculpture is also enjoying a belated, if not universal, return to favour.
Another of Longfellow’s poems entitled “The Slave in the Dismal Swamp” was the source for Richard Ansdell’s major painting, 'The Hunted Slaves', which is in the Walker’s collection and currently being conserved.