Henry Wadsworth Longfellow card

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

WAG 2004.5

On display


This bust portrays one of American’s best-known cultural figures, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82). Edmonia Lewis specialised in marble statues and busts, such as this one, executed in the neoclassical style. She is hailed as the first African-American woman to successfully develop a career as a professional sculptor. Lewis spent the majority of her working life in Rome. She was part of a community of expatriate women artists who shared strong feminist and abolitionist views and sought to use their art to draw attention to these struggles. This ‘sisterhood’ centred around the sculptor Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908), and is also central to the history of art and homosexuality. This is not only because several members of the sisterhood lived in romantic relationships with other women, but because they also actively rejected heterosexual norms. Few of the group married and all were financially self-sufficient. They adopted masculine dress and demonstrated their physical prowess by undertaking the arduous task of marble carving without assistance. Lewis’s position in this group, and the lack of any known relationship with a man, has fuelled speculation about her sexuality. On discovering that Longfellow was in Rome in 1869, Lewis went to remarkable lengths to portray him. She followed him around near his hotel so she could rough-out a portrait from memory and produce quick observational sketches, before inviting him for a formal sitting. His poetry, including the iconic ‘Song of Hiawatha’ (1855), significantly shaped popular Euro-American views of Native American culture. Longfellow’s description of the Native American people’s lives inspired Lewis, herself the daughter of a Native American (Chippewa) mother and an African American father. Longfellow’s earlier writing, including the poem ‘The Slave in the Dismal Swamp’ (1842), had also played a prominent part in the campaign for the abolition of slavery in America. Lewis’s earlier sculptures depicted scenes from Longfellow’s poetry and this portrait can be seen as the culmination of her admiration for him. There is another version of this bust, also made by Lewis, in the collection of Harvard University in America.