The first professional African-American and Native-American sculptor, Edmonia Lewis' exquisite work explored religious and classical themes. It is only in recent years that Edmonia’s work has received the attention it deserves.
The details of Mary Edmonia Lewis’s early life are unclear. It’s thought she was born around 1844 in Greenbush, New York. Edmonia’s father was a gentleman’s servant of Afro-Haitian descent. Edmonia’s mother was of Mississauga, Ojibwe heritage and made a living making traditional crafts she sold to tourists.
Sadly, Edmonia was orphaned by the age of nine. Edmonia’s aunts took care of her and her older half-brother, Samuel for the next few years. The children sold the craft items their aunts made and went by their Native American names. Edmonia was Wildfire and Samuel was Sunshine.
Samuel became a wealthy entrepreneur and paid for Edmonia’s schooling. As a result, Edmonia’s education was rich and varied. First, Edmonia studied under an order of nuns in Baltimore, then attended a Baptist abolitionist school, New York Central College, McGrawville. Edmonia left this school after three years. According to her, the educators “declared [her] to be wild”.
In 1859, Samuel sent Edmonia to Oberlin College in Ohio. Oberlin was the first college in the United States to accept black female students in a coeducational space. Edmonia was one of only thirty non-white students in a college of 1,000 and subject to intense racism and discrimination. This racism extended to physical violence towards the end of Edmonia’s time at Oberlin.
In a bizarre episode, Edmonia was accused of poisoning two white students she lived in a boarding house with. The girls did become ill but there was no evidence Edmonia had anything to do with it. Some townspeople dragged Edmonia into a field and beat her almost to death. After this incident, Edmonia was put to trial for poisoning but a jury acquitted her. Edmonia stayed in Oberlin to finish her degree but the teachers and students made her life unbearable and she was forced to leave.
Edmonia left Ohio behind and moved on to bigger and better things in Boston, Massachusetts. With a letter of introduction from her professor at Oberlin, Edmonia began studying sculpture under Edward A. Brackett, an artist who specialized in marble busts. Gradually, Edmonia set up her own studio and by the early 1860s, Edmonia was working as a sculptor. Edmonia’s first commercial success came from a bust she sculpted of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, a black civil war hero. Edmonia made plaster casts of this bust and sold them, saving enough money to leave the US for Rome.
Later, Edmonia said she was driven to Rome for artistic opportunity and a social atmosphere where she was not constantly reminded of her color. “The land of liberty had no room for a colored sculptor”, she said.
In Italy, Edmonia was able to embrace aspects of her identity beyond race. Embracing her African American and Native American heritage, Edmonia was free to practice her Catholic faith and develop her own artistic style. Other female sculptors in Rome’s expatriate community usually made models in wax or clay and had local marble workers carve the final piece. Edmonia did all the work on her sculptures herself.
A few of Edmonia’s most famous pieces include The Arrow Maker (1866), Forever Free (1867) and her most famous work, The Death of Cleopatra (1876). Edmonia’s realistic sculpture of a dead Cleopatra was exhibited at the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876. The sculpture weighed more than two tons and when it came time to ship it back to Rome, Edmonia could not afford the fees.
The sculpture remained in Chicago where it was bought by a gambler who used it to mark the grave of a horse named Cleopatra at a Harlem race track. Lost for decades, Cleopatra was discovered covered in paint in a Forest Park shopping mall. The sculpture is now part of the Smithsonian’s permanent collection.
There are large gaps in what we know of Edmonia Lewis’s life. This is partly due to a lack of documentation but also a result of Edmonia's tendency to give conflicting accounts of her life. Edmonia surrounded herself with a veil of mystery and there is little known about the last decade of her life. It was thought that Edmonia lived out her last years in Rome but death documents prove she died in London in 1907. Edmonia's death certificate stated that she was 42 years old but she was more likely 62. Like many great female artists, the recognition Edmonia deserved only emerged long after her death.