The self-taught sculptor William Edmondson was born in the Hillsboro Road section of Nashville, Tennessee. He was one of six children reared by his mother following the death of their father when Edmondson was fours years old. Both of his parents were freed slaves. Following years of work as a manual laborer, farm hand, porter, railroad man for the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis Railroad, and hospital janitor at the Nashville Women's Hospital (later named Baptist Hospital), Edmondson had a divine reckoning and became an artist. He later related the story of how God spoke to him. "I was out in the driveway with some old pieces of stone when I heard a voice telling me to pick up my tools and start to work on a tombstone. I looked up in the sky and right there in the noon daylight He hung a tombstone out for me to make" (quoted in Edmund L. Fuller, Visions in Stone: The Sculpture of William Edmondson [Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1973], p. 8).
In 1931, at the age of fifty-six, Edmondson briefly took a job as a stonemasons helper.
Not long after, however, physical ailments forced him into retirement, and he would spend his days carving stones (which would eventually be placed out in his yard) and tending to his vegetable garden. His first works were tombstones, which he sold for two to twenty dollars, gave away, or traded for gin. He worked in limestone, utilizing chunks or discarded blocks of stone that he usually culled from demolished buildings, fields, or curbs from streets that were being replaced with concrete. As Edmund L. Fuller related, Since all his stones were first uses as sills, lintels, steps, building foundations, or street curbs, their forms were [in the shape of ] rectangular blocks (Fuller, p. 16). In time wrecking companies would divert trucks to Edmondson's backyard and leave piles of stone for him at little or no cost.
Edmondson used a sledgehammer as well as flat chisels made from old railroad spikes. Fuller noted that he used several [chisels], making them from square tool steel of varying thicknesses. In this way he could have a large chisel for roughing out and smaller, more delicate ones for his surface finishing. For wearing down small areas and smoothing surfaces, he used a file. His only other tool was a short, wood-handled hammer. (In later years, he seems to have taught himself to use other stoneworking tools, e.g, a toothed chisel and stone abrasives) (Ibid., p. 14). He selected the stones in terms of texture, grain, color . . . Some of them were quite porous and granular while others . . . might . . . be mistaken for marble (Ibid., pp. 14, 16).
Around 1934, Sidney Hirsch, a poet and member of the art faculty of the George Peabody College for Teachers (now Vanderbilt University), discovered Edmondsons sculpture while taking a walk through the neighborhood. Hirsh introduced his friends Alfred and Elizabeth Starr to Edmondson, and they began to form a collection of his work. Upon visiting the city in 1936 the New York photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe was taken to Edmondson's home by the Starrs. For the next four years she regularly photographed Edmondson and his sculpture. Dahl-Wolfe arranged for her photographs to be shown to Alfred Barr, Director of the Museum of Modern Art. In the autumn of 1937, Edmondson became the first black American to be accorded a one-man show at the museum. This show was the offspring of the rising interest in American folk art in the 1930s, and the growing appreciation for the formal qualities that it shared with modern art. In 1938 Barr included one of Edmondson's works in the exhibition "Three Centuries of Art in the United States," organized by the Museum of Modern Art, which traveled to the Musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris.
Edmondson was a member of the United Primitive Baptist Church, and his work was impacted by its fundamentalist ideals. He frequently created carvings of angels, biblical characters, crucifixes, preachers, women, nurses, brides, lawyers, teachers, and various birds and animals, including eagles, doves, rams and sheep. These representations are often shown in a religious context. He also created birdbaths and portrait sculptures of prominent individuals, including Eleanor Roosevelt and the prize fighter Jack Johnson. Edmondson was employed by the Works Progress Administration for most of the period from November 1939 to June 1941. He ceased sculpting in the late 1940s as the result of health problems. Edmondson's works are in the collections of numerous American museums, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Newark Museum, and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center.
"Little Lady with Purse" was purchased directly from Edmondson by Anne Trice Nixon of Nashville. She first met the artist in 1941. At that time the photographer Edward Weston came to the city to meet Mrs. Nixon's husband Professor H. Clarence Nixon. During the course of Westons visit the Nixons introduced him to Alfred Starr, who took them all to meet Edmondson. Weston had come to the city while working on a commission to illustrate a new edition of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass".
Edmondson often worked in series, and "Little Lady with Purse" is one of a group of small sculptures featuring a woman carrying either one or two purses at her side. Edmondson never married, and Bobby L. Lovett has suggested that his female stone sculptures perhaps were meant to honor the women whose hearts he never won (From Plantation to the City: William Edmondson and the African-American Community, essay in The Art of William Edmondson [Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1999] p. 22). The artist himself referred to some of his sculptures as "courtin gals on the carpet for husbands" (quoted in John Thompson, Negro Stone Cutter Here Says Gift from Lord: Work Praised, Nashville Tennessean, February 9, 1941, p. 11A).
In Edmondson's representations of standing women, an oval-shaped face often juts out from below an abundance of hair. Typically, he includes only as much detail in his representation as he felt it required. Fuller noted that the figures mouth is often only a slight, straight line. Two stone pupils seemingly rise from the center of furrowed circles. A lengthy nose either protrudes upward with staunch pride or, merely outlined, lies flat against the face, accentuating its shyness and bewilderment (Fuller, pp. 18. 20). Sadie Whitlow Overton has astutely remarked that Edmondson often used limestone of such shape that the final sculptured form seemed barely freed from its original matrix (quoted in The Art of William Edmondson, p. 23).