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Biography: Edmonia Lewis, a Black Afro-American Sculptress

Updated on December 28, 2017

A Black artist who made a name

Mary Edmonia Lewis was an Afro American sculptor from the USA. She reached the pinnacle of sculptor despite being a colored in the 19th century. This by itself is no mean achievement at a time when the Afro-American was generally discriminated against.

Early Life

Edmonia was born in the first half of the 19th century. Her date of birth is unknown, but generally, it is accepted that she was born on July 4, 1844, in Greenbush, New York,

Edmonia in an 1866 interview, to the London Athenæum, claimed her father was a free black from the West Indies and her mother was a native Indian born in Albany. Researchers have concluded that a free African American named John Adams did marry an Ojibway (Chippewa) Indian named Catherine. They were Edmonia’s mother's parents. It is accepted Edmonia’s father was of Haitian African descent, while her mother was a Mississauga Ojibwe and African descent

Edmonia had an older brother, Samuel W. Lewis. He was 12 years older than her and had gone west for the Gold Rush. He became Edmonia’s guardian after the death of her parents.

Samuel went west, but he made arrangements for Edmonia to board with Captain Mills. He also provided the money for her tuition to attend a local grammar school in New York. Later he got her enrolled at New York Central College,

Edmonia at Oberlin College

In 1859, Samuel arranged for Edmonia to attend Oberlin College's Young Ladies Preparatory Department. Oberlin College was the first to admit women and African-Americans.

In January 1862, Edmonia was accused of poisoning two white female students who boarded with her. While awaiting trial, she was seized and badly beaten. She was acquitted and resumed her studies. The question who poisoned the 2 white girls has never been solved.

In September, Edmonia left Oberlin before completing her degree. Her brother helped her to move to Boston where she studied with master sculptor Edward A. Brackett.

Visiting Italy

Then, in 1864, she sculpted a bust of Robert Gould Shaw, who had died while leading an all-black regiment in the battle of Fort Wagner. The sculptor was greatly appreciated and more than a 100 plaster copies of the bust were sold. With this income and her brother's help, she was able to fulfill her dream of studying and working in Italy.

Edmonia first went to Florence, where she received a warm welcome. She also met America's most famous sculptor, Hiram Powers who encouraged her. Next, she went to Rome, her dream destination. In Rome Charlotte Cushman a well-known actress in this community of artists introduced Edmonia at her celebrated social gatherings. This gave Edmonia a significant foothold in the field of art in Rome.

Rise in Career

Charlotte Cushman financed Edmonia's first full-scale marble work in the winter of 1866-67. She sculpted, The Wooing of Hiawatha, inspiration for which came from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's popular poem, Song of Hiawatha.

In the next few years, Edmonia created medallion portraits of Franz Liszt, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Wendell Phillips; busts of Abraham Lincoln and others. She won a gold medal for Asleep and a certificate of excellence for Love Caught in a Trap at the International Exposition of Paintings and Sculpture, held at the Academy of Arts and Sciences in Naples.

In the summer of 1873, Edmonia exhibited her work in San Francisco and San Jose, where she won significant praise.

Death of Cleopatra Sculptor

She sculpted The Death of Cleopatra, which is considered to be her masterpiece. This was somehow lost and was rescued from a salvage yard in 1988. In 1995, it was installed at the Smithsonian National Museum of American Art.

Last Days

In 1887, Frederick Douglass visited her in Rome and Edmonia showed Douglas and his wife the sights of Naples. Records of her last years are hazy. It was speculated that she died in Rome in 1911. Scholars have now concluded she spent her last years in Hammersmith area of London, England before her death on September 17, 1907, in the Hammersmith Borough Infirmary.

Edmonia Lewis surpassed exorbitant odds to become the first African-American female sculptor who achieved significant fame. Lewis never married and had no known children. Her love life is almost a blank.


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    • MG Singh profile image

      MG Singh 4 years ago from Singapore

      I agree with you Chef-de-jour. Thank you

    • chef-de-jour profile image

      Andrew Spacey 4 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Interesting read. Thanks. It's amazing how some artists through skill and hard work and fortune? get to fulfill ambitions and inspire us all, and especially those from deprived backgrounds.

      Votes and a share.

    • MG Singh profile image

      MG Singh 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thank you purl3agony

    • purl3agony profile image

      Donna Herron 4 years ago from USA

      Really interesting article and a fascinating subject! Edmonia Lewis certainly deserves to be better known than she is today. Thanks for sharing the story of this great artist!

    • MG Singh profile image

      MG Singh 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks ComfortB for your support

    • ComfortB profile image

      Comfort Babatola 4 years ago from Bonaire, GA, USA

      This is the first I'm hearing of Mary Edmonia Lewis. Proof that 'we do learn something new' everyday. Especially here on hub pages.

      Thanks for this great info. Voted up and useful.