Hiawatha’s Marriage

Hiawatha’s Marriage by Edmonia Lewis, $1.3m at Sotheby’s.

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A marble sculpture by Edmonia Lewis (1844- 1907) titled Hiawatha’s Marriage soared to $1.3m (£1m), or $1.63m including buyer’s premium, against an estimate of $250,000- 350,000 at Sotheby’s Art of America sale on January 19.

It was competed for by museums, with Virginia Museum of Fine Arts successful. Underbidders included Ben Elwes Fine Art, London, on behalf of another US museum.

Leo Mazow, head of the American Art department at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, said: “This is a transformative acquisition for us. It is one of the most canonical 19th century American sculptures. Edmonia Lewis only created 10 versions and relied very little, if at all, on external assistants.

“It is a brilliant translation of a literary passage into marble form. It merges idealism and realism. Featuring characters from two different tribes… it has charged literary and political context.”

Changing demand

The new auction high reflects the changing demand for artists such as Lewis. According to Artprice, 19 works by Lewis have sold at auction with the previous high, for a slightly larger and later version of the same subject, being the $260,000 (£167,000) at Sotheby’s New York in 2009.

Lewis was of mixed African- American and Native American heritage (Mississauga Ojibwe). Her brother’s success in the California Gold Rush funded her art studies and later she was tutored by sculptor Edward Augustus Brackett.

Working in Rome from 1865, she was said to have been able to practise largely free from the racism she had experienced in the US. Never theless, she did experience sexism.

This led her to enlarge her models in marble herself, rather than by hiring Italian assistants.

Hiawatha’s Marriage, inspired by Henry Wadswor th Longfel low’s fict ional poem The Song of Hiawatha published in 1855, was conceived in 1866 with this example executed in 1870. Fromn 1850-76, a community of mainly US women sought creative refuge in Rome and developed professional careers as sculptors.

Their story is documented in A Sisterhood of Sculptors American Artists in Nineteenth- Century Rome (2014) by Melissa Dabakis.

Joshua Johnson record

Joshua Johnson portrait

Joshua Johnson's portrait of Mrs Martha (Hall) Dorsey and Mary Ann Dorsey, $900,000 (£706,000) at Christie’s.

At Christie’s Important Americana sale on January 18-19 an auction record was achieved for Joshua Johnson (c.1763-after 1826), the first known black American professional portraitist.

Little is known about his background but he is believed to have been of African and European ancestry. Working in Baltimore c.1795-1825, where he described himself as ‘a self-taught genius’, he is known for his naïve-style paintings of prominent Maryland residents. All of the sitters in Johnson’s known portraits are white with the exception of two unidentified African-American males.

The c.1804-05 portrait, Mrs Martha (Hall) Dorsey and Mary Ann Dorsey, consigned by descendants of the sitters, was hammered down at $900,000 (£706,000) against an estimate of $100,000- 200,000, with interest from institutions contributing to the bidding battle.

The previous auction high for Johnson came on January 20, 2019 at Sotheby’s when a portrait of a Dr Andrew Aitkin (1757-1809) took a hammer price of $550,000 (£426,959).