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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Edmonia Lewis, 1872

WAG 2004.5

About this object

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.

Object specifics

  • Artist(s)
    Edmonia Lewis (American, born:1844 about, died:1907)
  • Date
  • Materials
  • Measurements
    object/sculpture: 68.5 cm
  • Physical description
    A marble bust of a man with near-shoulder-length hair and side parting. He has a full moustache and wavy beard and the head is turned slightly to the right.
  • Related people
    HM Government (Previous owner) ; Edmonia Lewis (Artist/maker) ; Geraldine P V Sandbach (Previous owner) ; Henry Robertson Sandbach (Previous owner) ; Major General Arthur Edmund Sandbach (Previous owner) ; Samuel Sandbach (Previous owner)
  • Other number(s)
    WAG Inventory Number: 11606
  • Credit line
    Accepted by H M Government in lieu of Inheritance Tax and allocated to National Museums Liverpool in 2003
  • Location
    Walker Art Gallery, Room 08
  • Collection
    From the Walker Art Gallery collections


Previous owners

  • HM Government

    Owned from: 2001
    How acquired: Accepted by H.M. Government in lieu of inheritance tax
    Owned until: 2003
    Disposal method: allocated to National Museums Liverpool, for display at the Walker Art Gallery, 2003
  • Geraldine P V Sandbach

    Owned from: 1928
    How acquired: passed by family descent from Major General Arthur Edmund Sandbach
    Owned until: 2001
    Disposal method: Mrs. GPV Mackeson - Sandbach, died 2001; accepted by H.M. Government in lieu of inheritance tax
  • Major General Arthur Edmund Sandbach

    Owned from: 1928
    How acquired: passed by family descent from Samuel Sandbach (d.1928)
    Owned until: 1928
    Disposal method: passed by family descent to Geraldine P. V. Sandbach
  • Samuel Sandbach

    Owned from: 1895
    How acquired: passed by family descent from Henry Robertson Sandbach
    Owned until: 1928
    Disposal method: passed by family descent to Major General Arthur Edmund Sandbach
  • Henry Robertson Sandbach

    Owned from: 1872
    How acquired: Bought in Rome in 1872
    Owned until: 1895
    Disposal method: passed by family descent to Samuel Sandbach


Item inscriptions

  • Inscription text: EDMONIA LEWIS / ROMA 1872
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Object view = Fine Art
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