Acknowledged as the first professional African American and Native American sculptor, Edmondia Lewis was a talented classical American artist and manipulator of marble. The fact that her life is bookended by hazy details at its beginning and end, only makes this gifted artisan an even more intriguing individual, to say the least.
Sources typically tell us that Lewis was born in upstate New York, probably around Albany, circa 1844. Her father was a free African American man, and her mother part Ojibwe, whose tribe, according to Lewis, cared for her and her older brother after they were orphaned (although at what age there are conflicting answers, but it seems to be before Lewis was 10).
Lewis was able to attend Oberlin College (Oberlin, OH) in 1859, thanks in part to her brother’s earnings out west during the gold rush. Choosing to go by the moniker Mary Edmond whilst in college, Lewis was well-known for her drawing ability. Unfortunately, in 1862, Lewis’s reputation was slandered when two white housemates falsely accused her of trying to poison them. Even though the charges against Lewis were dropped due to insufficient evidence, the young artist was beaten by a white mob. Lewis left Oberlin and returned to the East Coast the following year.
Boston, MA became Lewis’s new home. With the support of Edward Augustus Brackett, a portrait sculptor, and abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Lydia Maria Child, she persevered until her dream of becoming a working studio artist came to fruition. This great personal achievement was followed by modest commercial success, as Lewis was able to sell some of her plaster works of well-know abolitionists. It was with her further success following the creation of the Robert Gould Shaw bust (the white leader of the black Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, who died alongside his troops during the Civil War), and the subsequent plaster copies of said bust that helped Lewis earn enough money to travel to Italy.
Continuing to hone her skills, Lewis drew inspiration for her sculptures from her Catholic faith and her heritage and experience as an African American and Native American woman, as well as continuing to create busts inspired by renowned figures of the day. Despite her giftedness, Lewis unfortunately remained something of an outsider in her circle of fellow American [white] female sculptors living in Italy. She traveled back to America a number of times over the subsequent years, selling her sculptures, and eventually exhibiting her masterwork The Death of Cleopatra in the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.
At this point in history, however, Romanticism was overtaking Neo-Classicism in the art world, and Lewis’s career began its downward journey. While we understand that she was still living abroad and exhibiting through 1890, the details of the last years of her life begin to blur. It is not know exactly what year she died, although it seems to be within the latter part of the 1910s, and likewise, her location of death has also never been determined.
It’s disappointing that so many details of Edmonia Lewis’s life have been lost to the dusty annals (and even this Gal-lery only grazes the surface), but it is gratifying to have a glimpse into the life of such a persistent artist who succeeded, even for just a while, as the odds were stacked against her.
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