Rare Edmonia Lewis Photo Discovered

Eric Hanks

Edmonia Lewis photograph on carte de visite. Collection: Walters Museum of ArtJacqueline CopelandOn a fall day in 2011 two Walters Art Museum colleagues walked into a Baltimore antique shop.  Jacqueline Copeland, deputy director for audience engagement, and Joaneath Spicer, curator of renaissance and baroque art, were looking for old photographs of persons of African descent for an exhibition to run parallel with a major exhibition that Spicer was organizing on Africans in Renaissance-era Europe

They searched through several boxes containing faded black and white photos, sepia prints and carte-de-visites (CDVs), a French term for a visitor’s card or calling card.  Carte-de-visites bore the owner’s photograph and were used like today’s business card.

In one of the boxes, Copeland recognized the woman shown on a CDV.   “Oh my god, this is Edmonia Lewis!” she exclaimed.  A sculptor of African and American Indian descent, Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907) was the first black visual artist to achieve broad, international recognition.

Copeland was astonished to find such an image because there were only seven known photographs of Lewis, all taken by the Chicago photographer Henry Roche between 1868-1870.  Even though she was confident it was the artist, she sent the card to an expert for verification.  A short time later the image was confirmed as the only extant photograph of Edmonia Lewis taken in Rome.  But that was not all.

Copeland studied the CDV and did some research.  She noticed that the 4 x 2 ½” card containing the image had the name of the studio, its address in Rome, Italy, in the margin directly below the photograph and its trademark on the back.  One of the most successful and prestigious ateliers in Europe, Fratelli D’Alessandri studio was founded by Antonio D’Alessandri and his brother Paolo.  The studio was popular with the Papal Court and the highest prelates in Rome.

With this information, Copeland speculated that Lewis, a devout Catholic, may have had the picture taken in anticipation of a visit to her Rome studio by Pope Pius IX, sometime before his death in 1878   She also estimated the date of the photograph based on a careful examination of the clothing worn by the artist.  For example, the “bustle” didn’t appear in women’s fashion until around 1872.   If she had the CDV created in anticipation of the pope’s visit, then the photo must have been taken between 1872 and 1878.

Because of Edmonia Lewis’ extensive efforts to advance her career,   Copeland believes more Lewis artwork and ephemera await discovery.  “She was so focused on promoting herself,” Copeland explains.  “I don’t think we realize how fully she did that -- giving interviews, going to the best places, traveling to Naples with Frederick Douglass, marketing herself.”  In her research, Copeland learned about a trip that Lewis made to Baltimore which is possibly how the CDV ended up in the local antique shop.

Copeland wrote Finding Edmonia Lewis, an article about the discovery of the photo for the Walters Members Magazine.  

Although the photography exhibition was never organized, the discovery of the Lewis photo has set Copeland on a new course.  She’s now working on a longer article on Lewis for the museum’s journal to be published at a later date.  Her continuing research may uncover where the sculptor taught newly freed African Americans in Richmond, Virginia, an account of which was revealed in an 1865 Boston newspaper. 

In working with Joaneath Spicer on the Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe exhibition, Copeland also helped develop the themes that would be understandable and accessible to visitors.  In a general survey of museum visitors prior to the opening of the exhibition, she learned that they had no concept of “Africans” within the context of “Renaissance Europe”; that's why the word, “Revealing,” was inserted into the show’s title.  Copeland says that the perception of black servitude in American history is so ingrained that visitors to the exhibition were surprised to learn about the achievement of Africans as “diplomats and church officials” in Renaissance Europe.   “They walked away with much more knowledge than they ever thought or knew.”

The Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe is covered in detail in the current print issue of the IRAAA.St. Benedict of Palermo. José Montes de Oca, attrib.ca. 1734, the Minneapolis Institute of Art. On view in Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe.

Jacqueline Copeland’s research on the Lewis carte-de-visite is the result of a summer 2012 sabbatical during which she searched archives in Rome. Her interest in Edmonia Lewis stems from the 2002 acquisition of a Lewis sculpture, an acquisition made possible by a challenge grant made by Baltimore philanthropists Eddie and C. Sylvia Brown.  The Browns donated $500,000 to the Walters to be matched by the museum, creating a $1 million fund for the purchase of historical 18th and 19th century art by African Americans. Copeland and Walters’ curators worked with Steven Jones, an African American material culture specialist, to acquire works for the permanent collection:  Street Scene, Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901), Bust of Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner, Henry O. Tanner (1859-1937) and the marble bust of Dr. Diocletian Lewis (no relation to the artist), created by Edmonia Lewis in 1868, two years after her arrival in Rome.

The Walters recently purchased the final major work associated with the Brown Challenge Fund, River Scene (1868), a serene landscape by Richard Seldon Duncanson (1821-1872), which is now on view in the Walters’ 19th-Century Galleries.

“Works by these renowned, historical African American artists strengthen the Walters’ collection and furthers the institution’s commitment to inclusivity,” says Copeland. “We want the entire community to feel connected to the art in our permanent collection in addition to enjoying our programs and special exhibitions.”

Steven Jones points out that in River Scene, Duncanson depicted several small finely dressed black figures who are engaged in leisure activities, “demonstrating that although Duncanson worked in the American landscape tradition, he added a nuanced African American perspective.”

Given the dearth of information about early African American artists, it’s heartening to know new discoveries are being made and research is being performed.  Jacqueline Copeland is not only directly contributing to the body of knowledge in this area but also providing inspiration to others.  “I hope young scholars will be interested in continuing the research,” she says. 

Eric Hanks is director of M. Hanks Gallery in Santa Monica, CA and a certified art appraiser specializing in African American art.