Majestic, proud and strong, Lion is a powerful symbol of William Edmondson’s personal resilience and deeply-felt spirituality. One of the largest figural carvings undertaken by the artist, Lion’s nuanced, chiseled features and open gait reveal Edmondson embraced this monumental scale. Indeed, his striking, textured mane and bushy tail place Lion amongst the most spectacularly carved pieces in Edmondson's oeuvre, his full weight and impact truly evident only in his consuming presence. Edmondson, one of America’s most important 20th century sculptors, carved only four known lions (one is in the collection of the Milwaukee Art Museum, another at the Cheekwood Museum of Art in Nashville), making the present work an extremely important and unusual masterpiece.
Lion is a significant subject that speaks to Edmondson’s faith and appreciation of the natural world, and the sculpture serves as a keystone joining the artist’s secular and sacred carvings into a larger narrative. Representing a powerful form in Christian iconography, as well as the King of the Jungle, earthly ruler of the many critters rendered by Edmondson, Lion is a principal character around which a Peaceable Kingdom of assorted animals and figures convene. He is at once an extraordinary triumph of nature and a lynchpin for visualization of biblical messaging.
Born to former slaves on a farm near Nashville, Tennessee, Edmondson moved with his family to Nashville proper around 1890 when urban expansion obliterated his childhood farm. He spent much of his adult life working as a janitor at the Nashville Woman’s Hospital. After losing his job in his late fifties, in the early 1930s, Edmondson established a stonecutting business next to his home to create tombstones for his community. Over time, he also began to carve freestanding sculptures of religious figures, famous and local people, and various animals. Edmondson carved from blocks of locally gathered discarded building limestone and, on occasion, purchased stone from local suppliers. Lion’s original stone block is evident in the rectilinear format of his base and the flattened carving atop his mane.
In 1936 Vanderbilt University affiliate Sidney Hirsch came across Edmondson’s yard, and he introduced his friends Alfred and Elizabeth Starr to the artist. The Starrs in turn brought Harper’s Bazaar photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe to visit, and she photographed the artist and his work multiple times in 1936 and/or 1937. After seeing the Dahl-Wolfe images, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., then-director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, authorized a 1937 exhibition of works by the sculptor, making Edmondson the first African American to have a solo exhibition at MoMA. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s Edmondson’s home remained a destination, drawing visitors such as famed photographer Edward Weston.
Lion descended in the family of Alfred and Elizabeth Starr, two of Edmondson's earliest and most steadfast supporters and collectors. Elizabeth gifted some of their pieces to the Cheekwood Museum of Art, but chose to keep Lion in her family, revealing her great reverence and affection for the work. Lion is presently accompanied by a photographic contact sheet that includes several frames of Edmondson leaning on Lion, a rare document chronicling the artist’s interaction with his masterpiece. This contact sheet also descended in the Starr family.