Reframing History: Edmonia Lewis

The Death of Cleopatra, 1876. Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum
Edmonia Lewis, photograph by Henry Rocher

The first African American and Native American sculptor to archive international acclaim, Mary Edmonia Lewis was born in New York in 1844. Born to a mother of Mississauga Ojibwe and African-American descent, Lewis was surrounded by Indigenous artisans and sold Ojibwe items to tourists visiting Niagara Falls and the surrounding area. By the time she rearched college age, Lewis lived comfortably thanks to her older brothers success in the California gold rush and in 1859, Lewis was sent to Oberlin, Ohio to attend Oberlin Collegiate Institute (later called Oberlin College). Oberlin was one of the first US higher-learning institutions to admit women and people of color. At Oberlin, Lewis began studying art, but was forced to leave the college in 1863 after numerous cases of discrimination and false legal accusations against her.

After leaving Oberlin, Lewis moved to Boston where she began her career as a sculptor. She was introduced to the sculptor, Edward Augustus Brackett, who instructed her in sculpting. She learned quickly and after selling her first piece, a sculpture of a woman’s hand, the two went their separate ways and Lewis opened her own studio to the public at the end of 1864.

Lewis’ work was heavily inspired by the lives of abolitionists and Civil War heroes, including a bust of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the commander of an African-American Civil War regiment. Shaw’s family was so impressed by the bust they purchased it and Lewis created a hundred plaster-cast reproductions of the bust which she sold as well. With the money made from these sales, Lewis was able to move to Rome to continue her career.

In Rome, she joined a group of expatriate artists and spent most of her adult career in Rome, where Italy’s less pronounced racism allowed her more opportunities as a black artist. While in Rome, she remained dedicated to creating works which focused on themes of black and American Indian people. She tied the neoclassical manner with the contemporary, creating heroic and classic works. Her career was immensely successful and sold for large sums of money. Her studio became a tourist destination in Rome and she had major exhibitions in Chicago and Rome.

In the 1880s, neoclassicism declined in popularity and with it, Lewis’ career. She continued sculpting, primarily for Catholic patrons and by 1901, she has moved to London. Little else is known about her life during this time. She died on September 17, 1907 and is buried in St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery in London.

Considered one of the best American neoclassical sculptors, her work reflected who she was as a black and indigenous woman. Yet, she typically adopted European features for her subjects to avoid speculation from patrons that her works were self-portraits, balancing her personal identity carefully with her artistic identity, particularly during a time of great change and unrest in the United States. In her 2007 book, Professor Charmaine Nelson wrote:

“It is hard to overstate the visual incongruity of the black-Native female body, let alone that identity in a sculptor, within the Roman colony. As the first black-Native sculptor of either sex to achieve international recognition within a western sculptural tradition, Lewis was a symbolic and social anomaly within a dominantly white bourgeois and aristocratic community.”

Lewis’ works are included in the collections at the Metropolitian Museum of Art, Howard University’s Art Museum, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and many more.

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