Lewis, Edmonia (c. 1845–c. 1909)

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Lewis, Edmonia (c. 1845–c. 1909)

First African-American sculptor to receive international recognition. Name variations: Mary Edmonia Lewis; "Wildfire," the Indian name Lewis gave as her childhood name; "Edmonia," as she preferred to be called as an adult. Born probably in 1844 or 1845, of a West Indian father, and perhaps of a mother of mixed Mississauga Indian and African-American blood; date and place of death uncertain, last seen in Rome, Italy, in 1909; attended New York Central College, an abolitionist boarding school; enrolled at Oberlin College, 1859–63; left to study art in Boston.

Began professional career studying sculpture with Edward A. Brackett in Boston; sold first sculpted medallions of abolitionist John Brown; helped finance travel to Europe to study art with sale of 100 copies of bust of Robert Gould Shaw (1865); went first to Florence, later moved to Rome; became part of circle of American women sculptors living and working in Rome; became protégé of actress Charlotte Cushman who helped raise funds for Lewis' first marble statue, Wooing of Hiawatha (1867); had first major public exhibition (of statue of Hagar) in U.S. at Farwell Hall in Chicago (August 1870); had public dedication at Boston of Forever Free (1871); had greatest triumph at Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, where Death of Cleopatra became one of the most celebrated works on display (1876); traveled in America (early 1870s), and returned to Rome (1874); last seen there (1909); date and place of death unknown.

Selected works:

The Muse Urania (Oberlin College Archives, 1862); Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Museum of Afro-American History, Boston, Massachusetts, 1867); Forever Free (Howard University Art Gallery, 1867–68); Hiawatha (Private Collection, Washington, D.C., 1868); Minnehaha (Private Collection, Washington, D.C., 1868); Marriage of Hiawatha (Cincinnati Art Museum, 1871); Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Harvard University Portrait Center, 1871); The Old Arrowmaker and His Daughter (National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C., 1872); Hagar (National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C., 1875); Death of Cleopatra (National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C., 1876). Other famous works included Asleep and Awake, the former winning a gold medal at the Naples Exposition.

Bold, energetic, headstrong, and talented, Edmonia Lewis was the first African-American to garner international acclaim in the art world of the 19th century. Lewis' creative talent, evident in the body of sculpture she produced from age 19 on, also manifested itself in her efforts to overcome the twin handicaps of race and gender. By offering journalists, patrons, and friends multiple accounts of the details of her origins and early life, Lewis captured the imaginations of those who might otherwise have ignored or rejected her work. At times, Lewis claimed to have been born to a Chippewa Indian mother and to a freed-black father in 1845 in Greenbush, New York, a town across the river from Albany. In another account of her origins, Lewis said that she was born in Greenhigh, Ohio; and on yet another occasion, she swore that she had been born in 1854. Evidence unearthed by a scholar working on a children's biography suggests that Edmonia Lewis may have been born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1844 to middle-class immigrants from the West Indies.

The most commonly held belief is that Edmonia Lewis' father was a free black, most likely from the West Indies; he may have been the man described in an Indian Bureau agent's letter as a "colr. man named Lewis." Attempts to connect Lewis to the Indian background she claimed suggest that her mother may have been the child of a marriage between an Ojibway (Chippewa) Indian named Catherine and a free African-American named John Mike. John and Catherine Mike and their children lived on an Indian reservation in what is now Mississauga, Ontario, a town near Toronto.

The first recorded mention by Lewis of her Indian heritage was made in 1864 to Lydia Maria Child , the Boston abolitionist who became a friend and patron to Lewis in the early 1860s in Boston. Child's article about Lewis in the February 1864 Liberator aroused considerable interest in the artist and helped increase sales of her early sculptures. Lewis elaborated on her Indian heritage in a lengthy March 1866 interview published in the London Atheneum, in which she recounted her Indian upbringing to journalist Henry Wreford. She gave "Wildfire" as her Indian name, and described her mother as:

a wild Indian … born in Albany … of copper color and with straight black hair … [who] often left her home, and wandered with her people, whose habits she could not forget, and thus we, her children, were brought up in the same wild manner. Until I was twelve years old, I led this wandering life, fishing, swimming, and making moccasins.

Orphaned as a young child, Lewis told her Atheneum interviewer that she spent the years following her mother's death living a nomadic life along the banks of the Niagara River, making moccasins and weaving baskets to sell to tourists.

This narrative of Edmonia Lewis' life following the death of her mother contrasts with the account of those years given by her older brother Samuel. Samuel W. Lewis, some 12 years older than Edmonia, had gone west at the time of the Gold Rush. He accumulated a small fortune as the result of shrewd real-estate investments, and by the 1860s had established himself as one of the leading citizens of Bozeman, Montana. According to Samuel Lewis, after the death of their parents, he assumed guardianship of his young sister. When he went west, he arranged to board Edmonia with a Captain Mills and paid her tuition at a local grammar school. Later, he sent her to boarding school at New York Central College, a Baptist abolitionist secondary school in McGrawville, New York.

The constraints of a small, strict Baptist school may have been too much for the high-spirited Edmonia, and by her own account, she was not there for very long. In her 1866 interview with Wreford, she ascribed her inability to settle in at boarding school to her Indian upbringing, saying, "I was declared to be wild—they could do nothing with me." Determined that his sister should have every possible advantage, Samuel Lewis arranged in 1859 to send Edmonia to Oberlin College in the state of Ohio.

Oberlin, founded in 1835 by abolitionists, had been a fully integrated facility from its inception; it was co-educational as well—the first of its kind in North America. Edmonia Lewis gained entrance to the Ladies Department, where she studied composition, rhetoric, algebra, botany, and the Bible. It is also likely that she received lessons in linear drawing, free to all first-year students in the Ladies Department. Lewis boarded at Oberlin with the family of John Keep, a retired theologian and the Oberlin trustee whose vote in 1835 had tipped the balance in favor of admitting women and blacks. Those fortunate enough to board at Keep's home enjoyed a standard of living far above that of ordinary college students. Although she was the only African-American boarding in the house, Lewis was well-liked and accepted in the family atmosphere created by the Keeps.

If the Keep family had hoped that under their roof Edmonia Lewis would be saved the hardships endured by most African-Americans in the antebellum era, they did not wholly succeed. Ironically, it was during her years at Oberlin that Lewis fell victim to a beating so vicious that it left her bedridden for weeks. The attack followed the accusation by two fellow women boarders at the home of John Keep that Edmonia had poisoned them. Lewis denied the charge. The disputed incident had occurred in January 1862, on a particularly cold and snowy day. Hearing that the two women were about to go on a sleigh-riding excursion with their gentlemen friends, Edmonia had offered to prepare a warm drink for them in her room. She made three glasses of hot spiced wine; the two women drank theirs, while Lewis' own drink remained untouched.

During the sleigh ride, both women became violently sick, and for two weeks afterward remained gravely ill and under doctors' care for suspected poisoning. The young women were certain that Lewis had poisoned them. Before any criminal charge could be made, supporters of Lewis, who included the Keeps, retained a distinguished local attorney, John Mercer Langston, to defend her should the need arise. Langston was a prominent African-American lawyer, a graduate of Oberlin, and the first of his race to be admitted to the Ohio bar.

Lydia Maria Child">

Some praise me because I am a colored girl, and I don't want that kind of praise. I had rather you would point out my defects, for that will teach me something.

—Edmonia Lewis to Lydia Maria Child

While Edmonia Lewis was awaiting word as to whether she would be charged, unknown persons seized and beat her severely. At her trial, Lewis was completely exonerated after Langston successfully argued that there was no proof that any poisoning had occurred, as the contents of the girls' stomachs had never been analyzed. Lewis was borne from the courtroom on the shoulders of jubilant friends and supporters, almost all of them white, and she was able to resume her college studies. She left Oberlin without completing her degree in early 1863, having decided to become a sculptor. With her brother's financial help, Lewis moved to Boston, Massachusetts, to pursue a professional apprenticeship under the master sculptor Edward A. Brackett.

Boston was the center of cultural and abolitionist activity, and John Keep had furnished Edmonia Lewis with a letter of introduction to the famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Through Garrison, she met many of the most wealthy and influential Boston abolitionists, among these the well-known woman of letters Lydia Maria Child, who befriended the young artist. Child was instrumental in bringing critical notice to Lewis' early work. It was in Boston too that Lewis met the celebrated actress Charlotte Cushman , who would also take a personal and professional interest in Lewis' work.

Not yet out of her teens, Lewis was eager to establish herself as a professional artist. She quickly grew impatient with the laborious, lengthy apprenticeship prescribed by Edward Brackett. Instead, she ordered that a sign be hung outside the studio her brother Samuel had rented for her: it read, "Edmonia Lewis, Artist." Her first commercial attempt was a medallion of John Brown, the abolitionist martyr. The work met with modest success in the community of abolitionists. Lewis' next effort was a bust of Robert Gould Shaw, the Civil War hero who had perished while leading an all-black regiment in the battle of Fort Wagner. The Shaw bust, exhibited at the Soldiers' Relief Fair of 1864, was a great success; Lewis received orders for 100 plaster copies.

The profits from the Shaw sculpture and the generous support of her brother Samuel made it possible for Edmonia Lewis to pursue her dream of studying and working in Italy. She went first to Florence, where the noted American sculptor Hiram Powers welcomed her to his studio. After some months there, Lewis moved to Rome, then the center of American expatriate culture. Rome in 1866 was home to an international coterie of writers, poets, and artists. For wealthy American visitors, no Roman tour was complete without a visit to the studios of the well-known artists in residence there. Such visits often culminated in either a purchase or a commission.

Charlotte Cushman, Lewis' friend and patron, was at the center of the international artistic community in Rome. Known for her interest in the young women artists who had gathered to work in the Eternal City, Cushman offered advice and support to Lewis. At Cushman's celebrated social gatherings, the young African-American artist created a stir, and the older woman often directed her wealthy friends and acquaintances to the studio of Lewis. Soon all of Rome was talking about the marvelous young sensation. Lewis' Rome studio, formerly the studio of the great Italian sculptor Canova, became a required stop for wealthy art patrons on the grand tour.

There were a surprising number of American women sculptors at work in Rome when Lewis arrived in the 1860s—Harriet Hosmer, Louisa Lander, Anne Whitney, Margaret Foley, Vinnie Ream , and Emma Stebbins , among them. American novelist Henry James, in his William Wetmore Story and His Friends, referred to the women as "that strange sisterhood of American 'lady sculptors' who … descended upon the seven hills in a white, marmorean flock." Edmonia Lewis had come to Rome at a particularly propitious time, and she was readily accepted in the community of women sculptors. Both Harriet Hosmer and Anne Whitney took a special interest in her work.

Haunted by the fear that people would not believe that she, an African-American woman, was capable of doing her own work, Edmonia Lewis at first did all of her own carving. In this she was unlike her contemporaries, who modeled a conceptual sculpture and left the actual carving of the marble to Italian artisans. This struggle for authenticity added to the burdens of the young artist, and she welcomed the patronage of Charlotte Cushman. Marble was very expensive; thus Lewis was delighted when in the winter of 1866–67, Cushman financed the creation of Lewis' first full-scale marble work, The Wooing of Hiawatha, a statue inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's popular poem, Song of Hiawatha. Cushman purchased the completed sculpture and paid to ship it to Boston, where she donated it to the Boston YMCA in hopes of drawing wider stateside attention to Lewis' talents. The interview in which Lewis told of her nomadic Indian girlhood as "Wildfire" heightened interest in the Native American theme pieces, and Lewis followed the Wooing with a companion piece, The Wedding of Hiawatha.

Along with the two Hiawatha companion sculptures, Lewis created a third Longfellow-inspired work, The Old Indian Arrowmaker and His Daughter. One of Lewis' best sculptures, it blends neoclassicism with the naturalism that would come to infuse her later work. When Lewis learned in 1869 that Longfellow was visiting Rome, she studied his face on the street, then returned to her studio to work first on a sketch, and afterward on a bust that would later win her the praise and admiration of the poet's family, as well as securing her reputation among her fellow sculptors in Rome.

The following year, Lewis executed a sculpture to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation. She carved Forever Free in 1868, afterward shipping it to the wealthy Boston abolitionist Samuel Sewall. That year, too, Lewis completed Hagar, begun the previous year in Rome and modeled on the Biblical Egyptian servant who had been cast out into the wilderness after bearing Abraham's child. While Hagar was a popular subject for many 19th-century sculptors who saw her as a symbol of slavery, Lewis invested her Hagar with a deeper religious meaning as well. In 1868, Edmonia Lewis turned to Catholicism, and she later described her Hagar as symbolizing the moment when Hagar's despair is ended by an angel, linking it to her own moment of spiritual awakening.

When she did not immediately find a purchaser for Hagar, Lewis, with the help of a Chicago businessman, rented an exhibition room in Chicago's Farwell Hall. She placed an advertisement in the Chicago Tribune inviting patrons to see the statue for a fee of 25 cents. In the ad, she described herself as "the young and gifted colored sculptress from Rome." Viewers arrived by the hundreds, driven by curiosity. Eventually, Lewis would receive $6,000 for Hagar.

During her sojourn in America, Lewis met the noted woman physician Harriot Kezia Hunt , who commissioned a life-size statue of Hygieia for her own grave in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Lewis also created a Portrait Medallion of Wendell Phillips, a bust of Abraham Lincoln, and a pair of cherub figures that she titled Asleep and Awake. In 1873, she traveled to California, where her work won her praise in San Francisco, as well as in San Jose. She was able to sell almost all of the statues she had shipped across the country, the last, the bust of Lincoln, being bought by the Friends of San Jose Library.

Returning to Rome, Lewis found her contemporaries hard at work on entries for the upcoming Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. For the next year, Lewis would work on the piece that would prove her greatest triumph, The Death of Cleopatra. Strikingly original and the largest of Lewis' works, it went on to garner considerable critical acclaim at the Centennial. Unlike Lewis' smaller works, however, it did not sell, and in 1878, she shipped it to the Chicago Interstate Exposition, where it proved a major drawing card, but again did not sell. Only recently was the work discovered in a salvage yard. Restored at the National Museum of American Art, the work went on display in 1996, more than a century after its triumphant reception.

Although most of the American expatriate artists had left Rome by 1876, Lewis had come to regard Rome as her home. She returned to her studio in the Via Della Frezza, where she remained for the rest of her life. She continued to produce sculpture, concentrating more on religious works. Among these was an altarpiece that she sold to the Marquis of Bute for $2,000, and an 1883 commission from a Baltimore church for an Adoration of the Magi. The noted African-American leader Frederick Douglass visited Lewis in her studio in Rome in 1887 and described her as living in a very pleasant apartment with a splendid view. Lewis showed Frederick and his second wife, Helen Pitts Douglass , around the city, and they traveled together to Naples. On his return, Douglass described Edmonia Lewis as "cheerful and happy and successful."

Little is known of Lewis' career beyond the commentary by Douglass in 1887. The Philadelphia Centennial had marked the beginning of the decline of neoclassicism in sculpture. The blend of neoclassicism and naturalism that Edmonia Lewis had employed with such success was being replaced by a trend toward realism. It is believed that in her later years, Lewis concentrated on religious works, and indeed, the last known mention of Edmonia occurs in a February 1909 article in The Rosary Magazine. The article described her as "aging" but "still with us."

Where and when Edmonia Lewis died has not as yet been ascertained. What is known is that the legacy of Edmonia Lewis reaches beyond the body of work found in museums, galleries, and churches; in her struggle to define herself against a 19th-century wall of prejudice, Lewis has come to symbolize a triumph over race, gender, and cultural experience. Against incredible odds, Lewis left her mark on the international art world.


Blodgett, Geoffrey. "John Mercer Langston and the Case of Edmonia Lewis: Oberlin, 1862" in Journal of Negro History. Vol. 53. July 1968, pp. 201–218.

Buick, Kirsten P. "The Ideal Works of Edmonia Lewis: Invoking and Inverting Autobiography" in American Art. Vol. 9. Summer 1995, pp. 5–19.

Burgard, Timothy Anglin. "Edmonia Lewis and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Images and Identities" in American Art Review. Vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 114–117.

"Edmonia Lewis," in The Revolution. Vol. 7. April 20, 1871, p. 8.

Langston, John Mercer. From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capitol, or The First and Only Negro Representative in Congress from the Old Dominion. Hartford, CT: American Publishing, 1894.

Lewis, Jo Ann. "An Afterlife for 'Cleopatra'" in The Washington Post. June 10, 1996, B1.

Richardson, Marilyn. "Edmonia Lewis" in Harvard Magazine Vol. 88. March–April 1986, pp. 40–41.

——. Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. Vol. 3, p. 607.

Wreford, Henry. "A Negro Sculptress," in The Atheneum. Vol. 39. March 3, 1866.

Andrea Moore Kerr , Ph.D., women's historian and author of Lucy Stone: Speaking Out For Equality (Rutgers University Press, 1992), Washington, D.C.

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Lewis, Edmonia (c. 1845–c. 1909)

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