There are many women sculptors throughout history even if many of them never were able to sign their work or be documented. Three outstanding representatives of women skilled in this art form are Mary Edmonia Wildfire Lewis (1844-1907 or possibly 1909), Augusta Savage (1892-1962), and Adelaide Johnson (1859-1955).
Mary Edmonia Lewis was born to a free Black father and an Ojibwe (Chippewa) mother. Her Ojibwe name is Wildfire and she went by her middle name of Edmonia. Given her mixed heritage and gender, sculpture was not an easy path for her to pursue in America. Her brother financed her education at Oberlin College. Although Oberlin was open for women of color she still was accused of trying to poison two of her white classmates and was severely beaten by a vigilante mob. She was accused of stealing art supplies and was not allowed to graduate. She moved to Europe and settled in Rome. There, her skills were able to blossom and grow. She became an artist of international renown and was known for her depictions of both her Indigenous and Black heritage in her sculptures. She is considered to be America’s first BIPOC sculptor.
Augusta Savage’s father disapproved of her interest in art and used to beat her for it. Lacking both support of her family and access to supplies, she didn’t sculpt for four years. When she was 27, a potter gave her some clay. She used it to make a sculpture to enter into the local county fair. She won a prize and a ribbon. Soon afterwards, she headed to New York City. She worked as a caretaker for an apartment and went to Cooper Union School of Art. It was there that she became the sculptor of the Harlem Renaissance. Her best known work is “Gamin”, an informal bust portrait of her nephew. She is noted for her positive portrayal of Black physiology. She went on to study in Paris and opened an art school in Harlem, NY. She was commissioned to do a sculpture celebrating Negro music and created “The Harp” which was exhibited at New York World’s Fair of 1939. There were no funds to cast it in bronze and with no place to properly store it, “The Harp” was demolished with the rest of the orphaned art from the fair. Savage had been replaced as an art instructor while working on “The Harp”. Funding for the arts ran low during the war years and she retreated to a small town in the Catskills to live with her daughter. While she enjoyed the serenity, she died in relative obscurity in 1962. Most of her art work has been lost to history but there is great interest in what scholars have been able to recover.
Adelaide Johnson was encouraged by her family to pursue art. At 16, she was sent to St. Louis School of Design which focused on training women for careers in the male dominated field of commercial art. Johnson was extremely influenced by Mary Henderson, the founder of the school who had many socially progressive ideas. She moved to Chicago to start an interior design business with fellow artist, Ida Morgan. She had an accident in an elevator and had to spend two years recovering from the injuries. She moved to Italy, and with the help of noted sculptor Harriet Hosmer, was able to secure work in a prestigious studio. A year later, she returned to the United States. In 1886, after attending a meeting of the National Woman’s Suffrage Association (NWSA, the Stanton/Anthony group) she was asked to make a bust of Susan B. Anthony. She continued to be hired by the suffrage leaders to sculpt various busts of them. As the passage of the 19th Amendment seemed inevitable, Alice Paul reached out to Johnson and commissioned the “Portrait Monument” that is currently housed in the Capitol building. It was very controversial for its time. Grouping busts of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott on the top and leaving the lower half of the sculpture as an uncarved block was not considered good aesthetics. Even Alice Paul had wanted something more traditional but Johnson would not change the design even though many critics considered it unfinished and strange. The “Portrait Monument” was put down in the “crypt” area of the building. Johnson continued to work but buyers dried up. By 1939 she was an elderly woman on the verge of homelessness and obscurity. She could not find buyers for her carved statues so she took a sledgehammer and started smashing them in her gallery. Her stunt worked because Congressman Sol Bloom paid off her debt enabling her to stay in her house. [Sol Bloom was responsible for bringing Little Egypt (WCW 22) to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.] Johnson died penniless in 1955.
In 1997, women’s groups were able to raise the funds to get the “Portrait Monument” out of the basement prominently displayed in the Rotunda. Karen Straser, leader of the group responsible for moving the statue, went on to found the National Women’s History Museum (NWHM) which has successfully lobbied to pass the Smithsonian Women’s History Museum Act in 2020 enabling the creation of a new museum on or near the Mall in Washington D.C.