The daughter of a black father and an American Indian mother, she became famous during the 19th century as an expatriate artist living in Rome.
And now she’s in the permanent collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
The museum announced on Monday it has acquired for an undisclosed price an exceedingly rare, multifigure marble sculpture by Edmonia Lewis, an artist whose life might be the subject of a full-length movie.
The sculpture, “Indian Combat,” depicts three American Indians locked in a fierce struggle, in poses that recall the classical Greek and Roman art that fueled Lewis’ imagination.
“I’m excited about it,” said museum Director David Franklin. “It seems to knock a few balls out of the park.”
Franklin said the Lewis is a significant addition to the museum’s collection of 19th century American art and its holdings in neoclassical sculpture. Moreover, it’s a piece by a female artist with a highly unusual story.
Born after 1845 (the date is uncertain), Lewis was able to attend college first in Albany, N.Y., and then at Oberlin College, after her brother struck it rich in the California gold rush.
After having been accused of poisoning two white women at the college, Lewis was acquitted at trial, but only after she was severely beaten, according to the newly published catalog of the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin, which bought a portrait bust by Lewis in 2002.
The Oberlin catalog states that after the trial, abolitionists helped Lewis move to Boston to study sculpture. It was there that Lewis sculpted a noted bust of Col. Robert Gould Shaw, who led a regiment of black soldiers, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, in an ill-fated Union attack on Fort Wagner in South Carolina in July 1863.
Lewis earned enough from selling plaster copies of her Shaw portrait to enable her to travel to Rome, where she established a studio and worked for many years before her death in 1911.
The sculpture was offered for sale by a Massachusetts collector who had inherited it from his father, who had in turn bought the piece in the 1950s, Cole said.
He said the sculpture is notable for the action and grace of its combatants, and also for the fine variations in the surface textures Lewis used to evoke animal fur, moccasins, animal claw necklaces and hair.
Lewis loved depicting American Indian subjects, and derived much of her imagery from the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem “Song of Hiawatha,” but “Indian Combat” is not specifically derived from the poem, Cole said.
Franklin said the museum had to be “aggressive” in the price it paid for the sculpture because other museums were pursuing the piece.
“It’s a coup for Cleveland,” he said.
The work will go on view in the museum’s 19th-century American galleries within two weeks, Cole said.