Edmonia Lewis, an artist with African and Native American roots
Edmonia Lewis was born on this date in the mid-nineteenth century, a pioneering Black artist believed to be the first woman sculptor of African American and Native American heritage.
Little is known about Lewis's early life. Sources give differing birth dates: 1840, 1843, 1844, or 1845, and various birthplaces. She claimed to haven been born in Greenbrush, New York, near Albany, but she also said in another account that she was born in Greenhigh, Ohio. One researcher suggests she was born in Newark, in 1844 to middle-class immigrants from the West Indies. Her father was African and her mother was a member of the Ojibwe community.
In 1859, Lewis entered Oberlin College in Ohio, where she excelled at drawing. Known as Wildfire in the Ojibwe community, Lewis changed her name to Mary Edmonia during her time at Oberlin, the name she usually used to sign her sculptures and her correspondence. Unfortunately when a teacher at Oberlin lost some paintbrushes, Lewis was accused of the theft; she was also accused of attempted murder when two girls fell ill after drinking mulled wine, which Lewis allegedly served them. Although acquitted of both charges, she was not permitted to graduate.
In 1863, she moved to Boston where abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison introduced her to sculptor Edward Brackett, who became her first mentor. Lewis's earliest sculptures were medallions with portraits of white antislavery leaders and Civil War heroes, which she modeled in clay and cast in plaster. Her bust of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, completed in 1865, which is owned by the Museum of Afro-American History in, Boston, depicted the young Bostonian as he led the all-Black battalion, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, in battle against Confederate forces. Sales of replicas of the bust enabled Lewis to travel to Italy in 1865, where she established a studio in Rome.
Lewis often drew upon her dual ancestry for insight. Her best-known work, Forever Free (1867), was inspired by the Emancipation Proclamation. The high point of Lewis's career was the completion in 1876 of The Death of Cleopatra, held by the National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C., which created a sensation at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition that same year. Other sculptors generally depicted Cleopatra contemplating death; Lewis showed Cleopatra seated upon her throne after death, her head thrown back. In her right hand, she holds the poisonous snake that has bitten her, while her left arm hangs lifelessly. This realistic portrayal ran contrary to the sentimentality about death that was prevalent at the time.
Edmonia Lewis was reported as still living in Rome in 1911, but the date and location of her death are not known.
Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia
Volumes 1 and 2, edited by Darlene Clark Hine
Copyright 1993, Carlson Publishing Inc., Brooklyn, New York
Today in American History