Edmonia Lewis

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Edmonia Lewis
Motto edmonia lewis original.jpg
Born Edmonia Lewis
ca. (1844-07-04)July 4, 1844
Greenbush, New York, U.S.
Died September 17, 1907(1907-09-17) (aged 63)
London, England, UK
Nationality African American-Haitian-Mississaugas Ojibwe
Education Oberlin College
Known for Sculpture
Movement Neoclassicism
Patron(s) Ulysses S. Grant

Edmonia Lewis (ca. July 4, 1844 – September 17, 1907) was an African American sculptor who worked for most of her career in Rome. She gained fame and recognition as a sculptor in the international fine arts world. In 2002, the scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Edmonia Lewis on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.[1]


Early life and education[edit]

Edmonia Lewis was born on July 4, 1844, in Greenbush, New York, which is now the city of Rensselaer.[2] Her father was Haitian of African descent, while her mother was of Mississauga Ojibwe and African-American descent.[3] Lewis's mother was known as an excellent weaver and craftswoman, while her father was a gentleman's servant.[4][5] Her family background inspired Lewis in her later work.

By the time Lewis reached the age of nine both of her parents had died. Her mother's two sisters then adopted both Lewis and her older brother Samuel, who was born in 1832. The children remained with their aunts near Niagara Falls for about the next four years. Lewis and her aunts sold Ojibwe baskets and other souvenirs, such as moccasins and blouses, to tourists visiting Niagara Falls, Toronto, and Buffalo. During this time, Lewis went by her Native American name, Wildfire, while her brother was called Sunshine. In 1852 Samuel left for California, leaving Lewis in the care of a Captain S. R. Mills, although he continuously sent back money for her board and education. Later, in 1856, Lewis was enrolled at New York Central College in McGrawville, which was a Baptist abolitionist school.[6] During her summer term there in 1858, Lewis took classes in the Primary Department in order to prepare for courses she would later take in collegiate programs. In a later interview, Lewis claimed she remained at the school for three years but left when she was "declared to be wild." In 1859, with help from her brother Samuel and abolitionists, Lewis was sent to Oberlin College at the age of about fifteen, where she changed her name to Mary Edmonia Lewis.[7][8]

At the time, Oberlin College was one of the first higher learning institutions in the United States to admit women and people of differing ethnicities. Lewis's decision to attend Oberlin was one that would significantly change her life, as that is where she began her art studies.[9] Lewis boarded with Reverend John Keep and his wife from 1859 until she left the college in 1863. Reverend Keep was white and a member of the board of trustees, but was also an avid abolitionist and spokesperson for coeducation.[8] During the 1859-60 school year, Lewis enrolled in the Young Ladies' Preparatory Department, which was designed "to give Young Ladies facilities for the thorough mental discipline, and the special training which will qualify them for teaching and other duties of their sphere."[10]

During the winter season of 1862, several months after the start of the Civil War, while Edmonia Lewis attended Oberlin College, an incident involved her and two classmates, Maria Miles and Christina Ennes. The three women, who boarded in the home of Oberlin trustee John Keep, planned to go sleigh riding with some young men later that day. Before the sleighing, Lewis served her friends a drink of spiced wine. Shortly after, Miles and Ennes fell severely ill. Doctors examined them and concluded that the two women had some sort of poison in their system, apparently cantharides, a reputed aphrodisiac. For a time it was not certain that they would survive. Days later, it became apparent that the two women would recover from the incident, and, because of their recovery, the authorities initially took no action.

Townspeople attacked Lewis. While she was walking home alone one night, she was dragged into an open field by unknown assailants and badly beaten.[11] Those responsible for her injuries were never found.[12] Due to the attack, local authorities arrested Lewis, charging her with poisoning her friends. The college defended their student throughout the trial. John Mercer Langston, an Oberlin College alumnus, and the only practicing African-American lawyer in Oberlin, represented Lewis during her trial. Although most witnesses spoke against her and she did not testify, the jury acquitted her of the charges.[11]

About a year after the trial, Lewis was accused of stealing artists' materials from the college. Even though she was acquitted due to lack of evidence, she was forbidden from registering for her last term by the principal of the Young Ladies' Course, Marianne Dascomb, which prevented Lewis from graduating.[13]

Art career[edit]

Minnehaha, marble, 1868, collection of the Newark Museum

After college, Lewis moved to Boston late in 1863.[14] She began to study under a well-known sculptor, Edward Augustus Brackett. Under his tutelage, she crafted her own sculpting tools and sold her first piece, a sculpture of a woman’s hand, for $8.[15] She opened her studio to the public in her first solo exhibition in 1864.[16]

Lewis was inspired by the lives of abolitionists and Civil War heroes. She met Union Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the commander of an African American Civil War regiment from Massachusetts. She was inspired to create a bust of his likeness, which impressed the Shaw family, who purchased her homage.[17] The poet Anna Quincy Waterston was inspired to write a poem about both Lewis and Shaw.[18]

Early works that proved highly popular included medallion portraits of the abolitionists John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison. Lewis also drew inspiration from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his work, particularly his epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha. She made several busts of its leading characters, for which he drew from Ojibwe legend.

The success and popularity of these works in Boston allowed Lewis to bear the cost of a trip to Rome in 1865.[19] On her 1865 passport is written, "M. Edmonia Lewis is a Black girl sent by subscription to Italy having displayed great talents as a sculptor".[20] The established sculptor Hiram Powers gave her space to work in his studio.[21] She entered a circle of expatriate artists and established her own space within the former studio of 18th-century Italian sculptor Antonio Canova.[22]

While in Rome Edmonia Lewis adopted the neoclassical style of sculpture, as seen in this nude bust.[23] The Walters Art Museum.

Rome was where Lewis spent most of her adult career. Her studies there contributed to her neoclassical techniques and subject matter. The surroundings of the classical world greatly inspired her and influenced her work. She recreated the classical art style in her own work. For instance, she presented people in her sculptures as draped in robes rather than in contemporary clothing.[24]

Her work sold for large sums of money. In 1873 an article in the New Orleans Picayune stated, “Edmonia Lewis had snared two 50,000 dollar commissions.” Her new-found popularity made her studio a tourist destination.[25] Lewis had many major exhibitions during her rise to fame, including one in Chicago, Illinois in 1870, and in Rome in 1871.[9]

A major coup in her career was participating in the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.[26] For this, she created a monumental 3,015-pound marble sculpture, The Death of Cleopatra, which portrayed the queen in the throes of death.[27] Of the piece, J. S. Ingraham wrote that Cleopatra was “the most remarkable piece of sculpture in the American section” of the Exposition.[28] Much of the viewing public was shocked by Lewis’s frank portrayal of death, but the statue drew thousands of viewers.[29] After being placed in storage, the statue was lost, not to be found again until a century later in the mid-1980s in Chicago. According to George Gurney, Curator Emeritus at the Smithsonian American Art Museum,[30] the sculpture was in a race track in Forest Park, Illinois, during World War II, sitting on top of the grave of a horse named Cleopatra. The grounds later turned into military housing and was used for children's games before becoming a shopping mall, when the sculpture was moved to the work yard of one of the developers of the mall. At some point during this time, the Italian marble was painted over by a troop of well-meaning Boy Scouts. Finally, the sculpture became under the purview of the Forest Park Historical Society, who donated it to Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1994,[31] where conservators restored it to its near-original state.

A testament to Lewis's renown as an artist came in 1877, when former US President Ulysses S. Grant commissioned her to do his portrait. He sat for her as a model and was pleased with her finished piece.[32]

In the late 1880s, the neoclassical genre became less popular, and Lewis's popularity also declined. She continued to work in marble, increasingly creating altarpieces and other works for Roman Catholic patrons. In the art world, she became eclipsed by history and lost fame. The events of her later years are not known.[9]


Lewis never married and had no known children.[33] Her brother Samuel became a barber in San Francisco, eventually moving to mining camps in Idaho and Montana. In 1868, he settled in the city of Bozeman, where he set up a barber shop on Main Street. He prospered, eventually investing in commercial real estate, and subsequently built his own home which still stands at 308 South Bozeman Avenue. In 1999 the Samuel Lewis House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1884, he married Mrs. Melissa Railey Bruce, a widow with six children; they had one son, Samuel E. Lewis (1886–1914), who married but died childless. The elder Lewis died after "a short illness" in 1896 and is buried in Sunset Hills Cemetery in Bozeman.[34]


For years, the year of Edmonia Lewis’s death was speculated to be 1911 in Rome. An alternative view held that she died in Marin County, California, and was buried in an unmarked grave in San Francisco.[35] Recent scholarship has found that she lived in the Hammersmith area of London, England before her death on September 17, 1907, in the Hammersmith Borough Infirmary.[36]


Descriptions of most popular works[edit]

Hiawatha, marble, 1868, Newark Museum

Forever Free, 1867
This sculpture is of white marble. It represents a man standing, staring up, and raising his left arm into the air. Wrapped around his left wrist is a chain; however, this chain is not restraining him. To his right is a woman kneeling with her hands held in a prayer position. The man’s right hand is gently placed on her right shoulder. Forever Free represents the emancipation of African-American slaves after the Civil War. Lewis attempted to break stereotypes of African-American women with this sculpture. For example, she portrayed the woman as completely dressed while the man was partially dressed. This drew attention away from the notion of African-American women being sexual figures. This sculpture also symbolizes the end of the Civil War. While African Americans were legally free, they continued to be restrained, shown by the fact that the couple had chains wrapped around their bodies. This piece is held by Howard University Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.[37]

Hagar, 1868
Inspired by a character from the Old Testament, this was made of white marble. It shows Hagar with her hands in prayer and staring slightly up but not straight across. Hagar was the handmaid or slave of Abraham's wife Sarah. Being unable to conceive a child, Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham so that he could have a son by her. Hagar gave birth to Abraham's firstborn son Ishmael. After Sarah gave birth to her own son Isaac, she resented Hagar and made Abraham “cast Hagar into the wilderness." Lewis uses Hagar to symbolize the African mother in the United States. She represented the abuse of African women. Lewis had a tendency to sculpt historically strong women. We see this not just in Hagar but also in Lewis's Cleopatra piece. Lewis also depicted regular women in great situations, emphasizing their strength.[33]

Old Arrow-Maker and his Daughter, 1866
This sculpture was inspired by Lewis's Native American heritage. An arrow-maker and his daughter sit on a round base. They are dressed in traditional Native American clothes and have recognizable Native American facial features. Lewis pushed the limits with the accuracy of her sculptures. She never generalized the appearance of those she sculpted. Instead, she found truth in the particular and used that in her work. She wanted to be as realistic as possible.[33]

List of major, known artworks[edit]

The Death of Cleopatra, detail, marble, 1867, collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum
  • John Brown medallions, 1864-5
  • Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (plaster), 1864
  • Anne Quincy Waterston, 1866
  • A Freed Woman and Her Child, 1866
  • The Old Arrow-Maker and His Daughter, 1866
  • The Marriage of Hiawatha, 1866-7
  • Forever Free, 1867
  • Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (marble), 1867-8
  • Hagar in the Wilderness, 1868
  • Madonna Holding the Christ Child, 1869
  • Hiawatha, collection of the Newark Museum, 1868[38]
  • Minnehaha, collection of the Newark Museum, 1868[38]
  • Indian Combat, Carrara marble, 30" high, collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, 1868[39]
  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1869–1871
  • Bust of Abraham Lincoln, 1870 [40]
  • Asleep, 1872 [40]
  • Awake, 1872 [40]
  • Poor Cupid, 1873
  • Moses, 1873
  • Hygieia, 1874
  • Hagar, 1875
  • The Death of Cleopatra, marble, 1876, collection of Smithsonian American Art Museum
  • John Brown, 1876, Rome, plaster bust
  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1876, Rome, plaster bust
  • General Ulysses S. Grant, 1877–1878
  • Veiled Bride of Spring, 1878
  • John Brown, 1878–1879
  • The Adoration of the Magi, 1883[41]

Posthumous exhibitions[edit]

  • Art of the American Negro Exhibition, Chicago, 1940
  • Howard University, Washington D.C., 1967
  • Vassar College, New York, 1972
  • Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, 2008


  1. ^ Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-963-8.
  2. ^ Passport application 21933, accessed on Ancestry.com on 1 November 2011.
  3. ^ Wolfe 12
  4. ^ Wolfe 15
  5. ^ Hartigan, Lynda R. (1985). Sharing traditions: Five Black artists in nineteenth-century America : from the collections of the National Museum of American Art. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press. 
  6. ^ Buick, Kirsten (2010). Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History's Black and Indian Subject. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. p. 4. 
  7. ^ Hartigan, Lynda (1985). Sharing Traditions: Five Black Artists in Nineteenth-Century America : from the Collections of the National Museum of American Art. Washington, D.C: Published for the Museum by the Smithsonian Institution Press. 
  8. ^ a b Buick, Kirsten (2010). Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History's Black and Indian Subject. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. p. 5. 
  9. ^ a b c Plowden, Martha W. "Edmonia Lewis-Sculptor," Famous Firsts of Black Women. Gretna: Pelican Company, 1994.
  10. ^ Buick, Kirsten (2010). Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History's Black and Indian Subject. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. p. 7. 
  11. ^ a b Katz, William L. and Paula A. Franklin. "Edmonia Lewis: Sculptor," Proudly Red and Black. New York: Maxwell Macmillan, 1993.
  12. ^ Woods, Naurice F. "Mary Edmonia Lewis," Insuperable Obstacles, Cincinnati: Union Institute Graduate School, 1993
  13. ^ Buick, Kirsten (2010). Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History's Black and Indian Subject. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. p. 10. 
  14. ^ Wolfe 41
  15. ^ Wolfe 43
  16. ^ Wolfe 44
  17. ^ Wolfe 46-9
  18. ^ Wolfe 49
  19. ^ Chadwick, Whitney (2012). Women, Art, and Society (Fifth ed.). New York: Thames and Hudson. p. 30. 
  20. ^ Passport application 21933 accessed on Ancestry.com on 1 November 2011.
  21. ^ Wolfe 53
  22. ^ Wolfe 55
  23. ^ "Bust of Dr Dio Lewis". The Walters Art Museum. 
  24. ^ Lewis, Samella. "The Diverse Quests for Professional Statues" in African American Art and Artists. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
  25. ^ Tufts, Eleanor. "The Nineteenth Century", Our Hidden Heritage. New York: Paddington P, 1974.
  26. ^ Wolfe 93
  27. ^ Wolfe 97, 102
  28. ^ Wolfe 97-99
  29. ^ Wolfe 100
  30. ^ Kaplan, Howard, "Sculpting a Career with Curator George Gurney", Eye Level Blog, Smithsonian American Art Museum, September 29, 2011, accessed December 7, 2012
  31. ^ [1], Museum catalog record for The Death of Cleopatra on the Smithsonian American Art Museum website, accessed December 7, 2012
  32. ^ Wolfe 108-109
  33. ^ a b c Perry, Regenia A. "Edmonia Lewis", Free Within Ourselves. Washington D.C.: National Museum of American Art, 1992.
  34. ^ Pickett, Mary. "Samuel W. Lewis: Orphan leaves mark on Bozeman" originally published in the Billings (Mont.) Gazette March 2, 2002 (Retrieved August 26, 2013).
  35. ^ Wolfe 110
  36. ^ "Sculptor's Death Unearthed: Edmonia Lewis Died in London in 1907 ." Cowan's Auctions: News. (retrieved 14 March 2011).
  37. ^ Collins, Lisa G. "Female Body in Art." The Art of History. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2002.
  38. ^ a b According to the Newark Museum; 1869–1871, according to Wolfe, 120.
  39. ^ "Newly Discovered Indian Combat by Edmonia Lewis acquired by the Cleveland Museum of Art." Art Daily. 19 Nov 2011 (retrieved 19 Nov 2011).
  40. ^ a b c The original sculpture is housed in the California Room of the San Jose Public Library. The statues "Awake (1872)," "Asleep (1872)," and "Bust of Abraham Lincoln (1870)" were purchased in 1873 by the San Jose Library Association (a forerunner to the San Jose Public Library) and were transferred to the San Jose Public Library. SJPL: Edmonia Lewis Sculptures
  41. ^ Wolfe 120


  • Romare Bearden and Henderson, Harry. A History of African-American Artists (From 1792 to the Present). Pantheon Books (Random House), 1993. ISBN 0-394-57016-2.
  • Buick, Kirsten Pai. Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History's Black and Indian Subject. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-8223-4266-3.
  • Collins, Lisa G. "Female Body in Art." The Art of History. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2002.
  • Katz, William L., and Paula A. Franklin. "Edmonia Lewis: Sculptor." Proudly Red and Black. New York: Maxwell Macmillan, 1993.
  • Lewis, Samella. "The Diverse Quests for Professional Statues" in African American Art and Artists. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
  • Nelson, Charmaine A. "The Color of Stone: Sculpting the Black Female Subject in Nineteenth-Century America" Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.
  • Perry, Regenia A. "Edmonia Lewis". Free Within Ourselves. Washington D.C.: National Museum of American Art, 1992.
  • Plowden, Martha W. "Edmonia Lewis-Sculptor." Famous Firsts of Black Women. Gretna: Pelican Company, 1994.
  • Richardson, Marilyn, "Edmonia Lewis' The Death Of Cleopatra: Myth And Identity, The International Review of African American Art, Vol. 12, No. 2, July 1995.
  • Richardson, Marilyn,“Sculptor’s Death Unearthed: Edmonia Lewis Died in 1907,” ARTFIXdaily, 9 January 2011, www.artfixdaily.com
  • Tufts, Eleanor. "The Nineteenth Century." Our Hidden Heritage. New York: Paddington Press, 1974.
  • Wolfe, Rinna Evelyn. ‘’Edmonia Lewis: Wildfire in Marble.’’ Parsippany, New Jersey, 1998. ISBN 0-382-39714-2.
  • Woods, Naurice F. "Mary Edmonia Lewis." Insuperable Obstacles. Cincinnati: Union Institute Graduate School, 1993.

Further reading[edit]

  • Richardson, Marilyn. "Vita: Edmonia Lewis." Harvard Magazine, 1986.
  • Richardson, Marilyn, "Edmonia Lewis." American National Biography, National Council of Learned Societies, 1999.
  • Richardson, Marilyn, "Edmonia Lewis." Encyclopedia of African American Culture and History. Columbia University, 1996.

External links[edit]