Edmonia Lewis, 1844-1907

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Woman Category: ArtsWoman Tags: African-American Women, Sculptress, and WDC Metro Area Women

  • HerStory

    The first professional African-American and Native American sculptress to gain an international reputation.

    Mary Edmonia Lewis was born free in Albany, New York. Her mother was of Mississauga Ojibwe and African-American descent, and her father was African-American. She grew up in Newark, New Jersey, until her mother died, then she moved near Niagara Falls, New York, to live with her maternal aunts. At the time, she went by her Native American name – Wildfire. Her brother, who had made a fortune in the California gold rush, supported her financially and encouraged her to get a proper education. At the age of 12, Lewis participated in a pre-college program at New-York Central College, McGrawville, and at 15, she attended the secondary Oberlin Academy Preparatory School before entering the Oberlin Collegiate Institute to study art. There, she used the name Mary Edmonia Lewis. After being falsely accused of a series of offenses that include poisoning of two of her classmates, theft, and burglary, she left college before graduation.
    At the age of 20, Lewis moved to Boston and began her career as a sculptress. She became Edward Augustus Brackett’s student, and in that same year, she had her first solo exhibition in Brackett’s studio. Abolitionists figures and Civil War heroes inspired most of her work at the time. She created a bust of Colonel Robert Shaw, who had died while leading the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, and sold copies of the bust at $15 apiece. She earned enough money that allowed her to move to Europe. In 1866, she traveled to Paris, London, and Florence before settling down in Rome. On her arrival, she met the sculptor Hiram Powers, who gave her workspace in his studio. In Rome, Lewis felt social, artistic, and spiritual freedom, saying that “The land of liberty had no room for a colored sculptor.” She established her studio, sculpturing in marble in a Neoclassical style, exploring classical, religious, and African American themes. Among Lewis’s most famous works is the sculpture “Forever Free” – a depiction of an African-American man and woman emerging from the bonds of slavery. She exhibited and sold her work both in Italy and in the US, and her studio became a tourist destination.
    The peak of Lewis’s successes was in 1876 when she exhibited a two-ton sculpture titled “The Death of Cleopatra” at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The statue drew thousands of visitors and was declared as the most remarkable piece in the American section. Afterward, she continued to receive commissions, but the demand for her work reduced with the Neoclassical style’s decline. She continued sculpting and displaying her work in small venues, but soon she lost fame and overtime got forgotten by history. In 1901, she died of chronic Bright’s disease at the age of 73 in London.

    “I had rather you would point out my defects, for that will teach me something.”

    “I had rather you would point out my defects, for that will teach me something.”


    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • She used to tell “white lies” about her upbringing, often presenting herself as “an Indian girl,” and “born in a wigwam.”
    • The real identity of her father is unknown – he sometimes mentioned as Afro-Haitian who worked as a valet, other times as the African and Native American author Robert Benjamin Lewis, while her half-brother said her was “a West Indian Frenchman.”
    • At Oberlin College, she was one of only thirty students of color out of a thousand.
    • After been accused of poisoning her classmates in college, she was captured and beaten by a white mob who left her to die. She recovered and was acquitted in the trial for lack of evidence.
    • While in Rome, She received professional support from the actress Charlotte Cushman and the abolitionist editor Maria Weston Chapman.
    • In 1877, she was commissioned by former US President Ulysses S. Grant to do his portrait.
      She never got married or had children.
    • Her sculptures are part of many museums’ permanent collections across the US, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Howard University Gallery of Art.
    • The Edmonia Lewis Center for Women and Transgender People at Oberlin College is named in her honor.
    • She was honored with a Google Doodle on February 1st, 2017.
    • The novel La linea del colori: Il Grand Tour di Lafanu Brown, by Somalian Igiaba Scelgo, combines the characters of Edmonia Lewis and Sarah Parker Remond.
    • The Graphic Novel “SEEN: TRUE STORIES OF MARGINALIZED TRAILBLAZERS: EDMONIA LEWIS” is detailing her life story.
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  • Black History Month FYI: Edmonia Lewis | The View

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