THE MARRIAGE OF HIAWATHA
titled Hiawatha's Marriage, signed Edmonia Lewis, and dated Roma 1872 on the base
cf., Wayne Craven, Sculpture in America, New York, 1968, p. 334
cf., William H. Gerdts, American Neo-Classic Sculpture, New York, 1973, p. 133
Kirsten P. Buick, "The Ideal Works of Edmonia Lewis: Invoking and Inverting Autobiography," American Art, Summer 1995, pp. 5-19, illustration of another example p. 17
Marilyn Richardson, "Hiawatha In Rome: Edmonia Lewis and Figures From Longfellow," The Catalogue of Antiques & Fine Art, Spring 2002, pp. 198-203, illustration of another example p. 202
We are grateful to Marilyn Richardson for her assistance in preparing the following catalogue entry.
Four thousand copies of the initial printing of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha, were sold before its November 1855 publication date. Demand eventually lessened but never ceased, making the tragic love story of the Indian brave and the maiden Minnehaha the best selling English language poem of the 19 (th )century. Not only readers were entranced; artists of all sorts - painters, sculptors, composers, dancers, and actors fed the extraordinary public hunger for all things Hiawatha.
Edmonia Lewis, the daughter of a black father and a mother of Ojibway descent, created a series of works based upon scenes and characters from the poem. The marble group titled Hiawatha's Marriage, or alternately The Marriage of Hiawatha or Hiawatha's Wedding, first appeared in 1866. Two years later, Longfellow himself, during a stay in Rome, visited Lewis's studio and sat for a portrait bust by America's first internationally acclaimed non-white sculptor.
In this 1872 example, Hiawatha and Minnehaha, whose name is translated as Laughing Water, are clothed in animal pelt, feathers, and elegantly draped fabric, positing both their wilderness origins and their innate finer sensibilities. The beads at Minnehaha's neck represent the couple's betrothal when "round [her] neck he hung the wampum/ As a pledge, the snow-white wampum," and then in the scene Lewis depicts, "From the wigwam he departed. / Leading with him Laughing Water. / Hand in hand they went together . . ." Longfellow considered this journey, with their nights together in the forest, their woodland wedding, referring thereafter to Minnehaha as Hiawatha's wife. Within the composition the lovers lost in each other's gaze step forward into their life together, and as all readers of the poem knew, they move as well toward their ultimate doom.
Art enthusiasts of the era would have been reminded of representations of Cupid and Psyche, in particular one by Antonio Canova, a significant influence on Lewis and her late-neoclassical peers. Here, however, the couple's embrace lacks the traditional erotic charge, replacing passion with a respectful, protective reserve. Lewis's first Roman studio, where her early Indian pieces were produced, was located in a building which had once housed the work rooms of the master himself. Visitors to her studio felt Lewis's Indian pieces had an extra dimension of authenticity coming as they did from the hand of a sculptor who was herself part Native American; as a result they were particularly favored by collectors.
The provenance of this piece underscores Lewis's devout Roman Catholicism. She was baptized Mary Edmonia and for part of her childhood educated by nuns.