Edmonia Lewis – Sculpting Shero

Emonia Lewis was a world famous African American and Native American sculptor. Born in America, she spent most of her career in Rome.

Edmonia was born on 4th July 1844. Her father was Haitian, while her mother was from the Native American Ojibwa tribe. Sadly, by the time she was 9 they had both died, so Edmonia and her brother went to live with her aunts in Canada, where her mother’s tribe came from. While living with them she was known by her native name, ‘Wildfire’, while her brother was called ‘Sunshine’. She helped make traditional baskets with her aunts, which they sold to tourists near Niagra Falls.

In 1859 Wildfire became Mary Edmonia Lewis, when she started college and decided to change her name. She went to Oberlin College, which was the first college in America to allow women and African Americans to attend. It was here that she first developed her passion for art.

Unfortunately everything did not go smoothly while she was at college. A couple of years into her studies she was accused of poisoning two white students. While no evidence was found to support the accusation and she was officially aquitted, the townspeople took it in their own hands to punish Edmonia. In a brutal attack they ambushed her and severely beat her. Somehow Edmonia got past this and continued to study at Oberlin, but when more (probably false) accusations surfaced the following year she was forced to leave.

After this, in 1864, Edmonia picked herself up and decided to pursue her dream of becoming a sculptor. She moved to Boston and found a well known artist who would teach her the skill. She was a fast learner and showed great talent; later that year she had her very first solo exhibition.

Her sculptures were made of marble, and while she worked in a classical style, the themes which inspired her work reflected modern ideas. She was moved by the abolitionists who were trying to end slavery and their ideas greatly influenced her work.

Her name became really well known when she made a sculpture of a well known Civil War hero called Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. People wanted to buy her work and soon she was in great demand, selling her work for lots of money!

Edmonia knew what she wanted to spend her new income on and in 1866 she bought a ticket to sail to Rome. Once there she was able to set up a studio and learn from other great artists. She was supported in her work by a group of forward thinking women which included other artists and abolitionists, including anti-slavery activist Maria Weston Chapman and actress Charlotte Cushman. The women were known as feminists and some of them were openly gay – which made for quite a controversial group at the time. Some people have suggested that Edmonia herself was also gay.

She created lots of beautiful works of art while she lived in Rome. She carried on using marble and sculpted pieces inspired by her Native American heritage like this one called Hiawatha’s Marriage, inspired by the story of Hiawatha:

Hiawatha's Marriage
Hiawatha’s Marriage

The way she showed Native Americans in her sculptures challenged the idea many people held at the time that they were ‘savages’ – instead she portrayed dignified human beings.

She was also inspired by the ongoing struggle to end slavery. One of her most famous pieces was called Forever Free and showed a black slave with broken chains.

Forever Free
Forever Free

At the height of her fame Edmonia was invited to exibit a piece for the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, America’s first official World Fair. She was the only black female artist to display work there, and the piece she created was described as “the most remarkable piece of sculpture in the American section”. It was a huge marble scuplture called The Death of Cleopatra. It really caused a stir for how boldly it portrayed death.

Death of Cleopatra
Death of Cleopatra

After the exposition the statue was put into storage and was lost for the next 100 years! It was eventually found in the 1970s and is now on display in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art. After the stir caused by the Cleopatra sculpture Edmonia was so well known that the following year the President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant, commissioned her to sculpt his portrait!

In her later life Edmonia’s fame faded as the type of art that people liked changed. By the turn of the century she had moved to London, but very little is known of her life from that point until her death in 1907.


Find out more…

Read more about the disappearance & rediscovery of The Death of Cleopatra here.

There is a book written about Edmonia’s life called Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History’s Black and Indian Subject. Buy it here.

There are several videos on YouTube about Edmonia Lewis. This one is a good place to start and is part of a series about American artists. Watch this (part 5) and Part 6 to find out more detail about Edmonia’s life.

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