Edmonia Lewis, Forever Free

Edmonia Lewis, Forever Free, 1867, Carrara marble, 106 x 57.2 cm, 31.4 cm in diameter (Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Edmonia Lewis, Forever Free, 1867, Carrara marble, 106 x 57.2 cm, 31.4 cm in diameter (Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Standing a little over three feet high, Forever Free (Morning of Liberty) depicts two figures carved out of white marble. On the left is a kneeling woman with hands clasped in prayer and her chin and eyes lifted. Her left foot, visible under her simple dress, appears to be chained to the base of the statue. On the right is a man who stands with his left foot unshackled and resting on the ball and chain that once bound him. His right hand rests on the shoulder of his companion while his left hand is raised triumphantly with broken shackles still encircling his wrist. Like the woman whom he touches protectively and lovingly, his face and eyes are lifted.

Edmonia Lewis, Forever Free (detail), 1867, Carrara marble, 106 x 57.2 cm, 31.4 cm in diameter (Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Edmonia Lewis, Forever Free (detail), 1867, Carrara marble, 106 x 57.2 cm, 31.4 cm in diameter (Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

While her hair is relatively straight and flowing, his is tightly coiled. These visual elements, together with the title of the work, Forever Free, incised on the base on the sculpture, suggest that the figures are Black and that we see them at the very moment of their liberation from enslavement. 

Edmonia Lewis, Forever Free, 1867. Marble, Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., photo Olivia Chiang

Edmonia Lewis, Forever Free (detail), 1867, Carrara marble, 106 x 57.2 cm, 31.4 cm in diameter (Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., photo Olivia Chiang)

Sculpted in 1867 by Mary Edmonia Lewis, Forever Free (Morning of Liberty) is positioned between and among three events that forever changed the trajectory of African Americans and the United States. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln announced the largely symbolic Emancipation Proclamation. With the victory of the United States army in 1865, Congress passed the 13th Amendment, which abolished enslavement and among other liberties, entitled freed people to basic human rights, including the right to marry. Made two years later in 1867, Forever Free embodies this basic and universal right to marriage, which had been illegal for those in bondage. The following year, in 1868, the 14th Amendment was passed, which guaranteed citizenship rights to those who were formerly enslaved.  

Thomas Ball, Freedmen’s Memorial to Abraham Lincoln, 1876, Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C. (photo: Renee Ater)

Thomas Ball, Emancipation Statue (Freedmen’s Memorial to Abraham Lincoln), 1876, Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C. (photo: Renée Ater)

Countering the status quo in emancipation sculptures

Edmonia Lewis, Forever Free, 1867, Carrara marble, 106 x 57.2 cm, 31.4 cm in diameter (Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Edmonia Lewis, Forever Free, 1867, Carrara marble, 106 x 57.2 cm, 31.4 cm in diameter (Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In addition to focusing on the freedoms granted by the 13th Amendment, Forever Free also significantly breaks from the tradition of showing emancipation as a passive event for Black Americans. Typical renderings of emancipation tended to feature a single, Black male figure who still carried symbols of oppression, such as shackles. Sculptures such as Thomas Ball’s Freedmen’s Memorial of 1875, while referring to emancipation, couched the idea of freedom for African Americans as dependent upon the benevolence of white men. Ball’s sculpture features two Presidents—Lincoln standing and holding the Emancipation Proclamation, and George Washington, shown in a bas-relief profile on the column upon which the Proclamation rests. These men watch over a kneeling Black man who wears a loincloth and whose eyes and gestures present him as a harmless supplicant. Lincoln’s sweeping gesture of benevolence presents “liberty” as a gift to be granted rather than a return of what had been cruelly stolen.

What made Forever Free unusual and radical among such sculptures depicting emancipation was the posture assumed by the male figure. Normally shown kneeling and with his back bent, Lewis’s figure is upright and defiant with no implied presence of Lincoln or any other white figure to bestow freedom upon him or the woman he protects. Instead, the couple in Lewis’s sculpture appears to be thankful only to God.

Furthermore, in Forever Free emancipation is shown as an issue for a family unit rather than the usual rendering of a single Black male. Lewis’s focus on a Black couple suggests that the sexual and reproductive energies of Black Americans would now belong wholly to themselves. This contrasts to the conditions of enslavement when owners saw reproduction as a means to generate more labor and property. Enslaved people were also often victims of sexual violence, including men who were sexually abused by their owners. Forever Free is a sculpture that demonstrates how previously outlawed affection and intimacy between enslaved people could now be recognized and formalized through marriage. The inclusion of the word “forever” in the title of the sculpture alludes to the future generations of free and equal citizens that this and many other couples will produce.

Edmonia Lewis, The Old Arrow Maker, modeled 1866, carved c. 1872, marble, 50.8 x 35.6 x 35.6 cm (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art).

In Longfellow’s poem, Minnehaha (left), leaves her father (right) to marry Hiawatha. Edmonia Lewis, The Old Arrow Maker, modeled 1866, carved c. 1872, marble, 50.8 x 35.6 x 35.6 cm (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

It is important to note that Forever Free was not Lewis’s first and only representation of family. It shares with her works based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha” a reaffirmation of heterosexual relationships in which men and women of the same race marry. A common belief among abolitionists like Harriet Beecher Stowe was that the only legitimate families were “biological” ones, meaning that the parents were of the same race. The belief was thus a critique of the pairings outside of marriage that saw the birth of mixed-race children who were often the product of Black women raped by white men.

More importantly, the sculptures represent Lewis’s refusal to share more of herself than distant references to her heritage. She never created works in which the couples were of different racial heritages—such as a Black father and Indigenous mother, like her own parents. Lewis was born free around 1845 in upstate New York. Her mother was Ojibwa and Black and her father was of African descent and an immigrant from Haiti. Lewis never made sculptures based on her direct experiences with her mother’s people, and born free, she had never experienced enslavement. 

An independent artist and business person

Portrait of Edmonia Lewis, c. 1874–76, photograph by Fratelli d'Alessandri in Rome, Italy, albumen print mounted as a carte de visite on card, 10.16 x 6.35 cm (The Walters Art Museum)

Portrait of Edmonia Lewis, c. 1874–76, photograph by Fratelli d’Alessandri in Rome, Italy, albumen print mounted as a carte de visite on card, 10.16 x 6.35 cm (The Walters Art Museum)

Lewis’s parents died when she was about eight years old, and her half-brother Samuel took on the responsibility of raising and educating her. He sent her first to McGrawville (New York Central College), an antislavery boarding school run by Baptists in McGraw, New York. In 1861, her brother then sent her to Oberlin College where she trained in courses that were considered suited to women (by the standards of the time) and where she expressed an early interest in art.

Lewis left Oberlin in 1863 but, armed with letters of introduction to abolitionists in Boston, met Lydia Maria Child, one of the foremost antislavery advocates and the editor of the prominent abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. Child would become Lewis’s most powerful white abolitionist patron though, in private letters, would at times express frustration with what she saw as Lewis’s outsized ambitions. 

Edmonia Lewis, Portrait Medal of Wendell Phillips, 1871, marble, 46 cm in diameter (National Portrait Gallery)

Edmonia Lewis, Portrait Medal of the Abolitionist Wendell Phillips, 1871, marble, 46 cm in diameter (National Portrait Gallery)

While in Boston, Lewis trained under the sculptor Edward Augustus Brackett, and created and sold medallions of abolitionists like John Brown and plaster busts of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (despite disapproval from Child for taking on such a revered figure). With the money she earned from selling her own work, Lewis was able to travel to Italy and eventually establish a studio in Rome where she began producing her works based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha (1855) as well as biblical, historical, and mythological figures. She also continued to sculpt busts of prominent abolitionists.

Close up of base. Edmonia Lewis, Forever Free (detail), 1867, Carrara marble, 106 x 57.2 cm, 31.4 cm in diameter (Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY)

Close up of base. Edmonia Lewis, Forever Free (detail), 1867, Carrara marble, 106 x 57.2 cm, 31.4 cm in diameter (Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY)

It was in Italy that Lewis sculpted Forever Free in 1867, a fact she inscribed on the base of the work in Latin, the language of ancient Rome. She used Latin because it was precedent for her peers—it positions sculptors as heirs to the traditions of ancient Roman sculpture; the marble was from Carrara; the works were made in Rome; and finally, it made the British, German, Dutch, US, etc. artists legitimate in the face of their Italian competition.

White marble was the common currency of fine art sculpture during the first 75 years of the nineteenth century. Typically, such a medium would be used to depict “ideal” subject matter, such as figures from the bible, history, mythology, or literature. White marble also evoked the ancient classical past and its traditions of depicting gods, goddesses, and imperial rulers. What makes Lewis’s sculpture so profound was the use of such an elevated medium for the subject of enslaved people. 

Edmonia Lewis, Forever Free, 1867, Carrara marble, 106 x 57.2 cm, 31.4 cm in diameter (Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Edmonia Lewis, Forever Free, 1867, Carrara marble, 106 x 57.2 cm, 31.4 cm in diameter (Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Forever Free also marks Lewis’s defiance against her white patrons who attempted to dictate her creative path. Specifically, Lydia Maria Child had discouraged Lewis from attempting any more “ideal works,” including creating a sculpture based on the Emancipation Proclamation. Despite Child’s disapproval of the sculpture’s subject matter, Lewis completed the work, and rather than allow Forever Free to languish in her European studio as her patron wished, Lewis shipped the sculpture to Boston where it was publicly advertised and exhibited at the A.A. Childs Gallery. [1]

Lewis followed the sculpture to Boston in 1869, and with recent passage of the 14th Amendment, her decision to have a formal dedication ceremony of the sculpture in honor of Leonard Andrew Grimes was even more meaningful. Grimes was an African American minister and abolitionist who served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. During the antebellum era, one of his overriding missions was to reunite families torn apart by enslavement. Thus, Lewis’s depiction of this new family that freedom had created was rendered as a fulfillment of Grimes’s activism. In many ways, Forever Free (Morning of Liberty) became a blueprint for how Lewis would conduct her career and demonstrated her determination to work at her own pace and according to the needs of her creative impulses, rather than to the dictates of white patrons. The story of this sculpture is the story of her career where neither forgiveness nor permission was ever asked by the artist.

Notes:

[1] In an event typical of the nineteenth century, this exhibition would include a single work of art, advertised to the public, who would be charged general admission (usually twenty-five cents) to view the work.

Thomas Ball, Freedmen’s Memorial to Abraham Lincoln, 1876, Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C. (photo: Renee Ater)


Additional resources

Harry Henderson and Albert Henderson, The Indomitable Spirit of Edmonia Lewis. A Narrative Biography. Fall, 2012 (enhanced distribution Fall 2013).

Kirsten Pai Buick, “Propaganda Fide: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Catholic Church,” in Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art, edited by James Romaine and Phoebe Wolfskill (Penn State University Press, 2018).

Kirsten Pai Buick, Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History’s Black and Indian Subject (Duke University Press, 2010).

Thomas A. Foster, Rethinking Rufus: Sexual Violations of Enslaved Men (Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 2019).

Kevin Phillips, The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, and the Triumph of Anglo-America (New York: Basic Books, 1999).

Marilyn Richardson, “Edmonia Lewis at McGrawville: The Early Education of a 19th Century Black Woman Artist,” 19th Century Contexts 22,2 (Fall 2000): pp. 239–256.

Cite this page as: Dr. Kirsten Pai Buick, "Edmonia Lewis, Forever Free," in Smarthistory, February 22, 2023, accessed May 28, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/edmonia-lewis-forever-free/.