Edmonia Lewis circa 1870
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

The idea that in order to succeed an artist must first suffer is one with a long history. In that sense, the life and work of Edmonia Lewis, the first black sculptor to gain an international reputation, is instructive, since art historians have judged that “the obstacles [she] overcame are unparalleled in American art.” She suffered, and yet it did not kill her, or kill her career. In all, Lewis created about 60 unique and highly regarded sculptures.

The precise details of Lewis’ early years are unclear. She was most likely born in 1844 or 1845 near Albany, N.Y., to an African-American father and a mother who was of Native American descent. It is possible that the family, including a half-brother, Samuel, lived briefly in Newark, N.J., but by the age of 9, Lewis was orphaned and adopted by her mother’s aunts into a nomadic Mississauga band of the Ojibwe near Niagara Falls. As a child, she was given the Ojibwe name “Wildfire”; learned to catch and cook her own meals; and made and sold moccasins, baskets and other souvenirs.

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In 1859 Lewis’ older brother Samuel, who by then had made a fortune in the California Gold Rush, paid Lewis’ tuition for the ladies preparatory program at Oberlin College in Ohio. Oberlin was one of the few institutions open to blacks at that time.

Lewis’ experiences at Oberlin were shaped by the heightened racial tensions of the early Civil War years. When white housemates accused her of poisoning them with Spanish fly, a local mob, long opposed to Oberlin’s interracialism, beat Lewis’ tiny frame—she was only 4 feet tall—and left her for dead. She recovered, only to face her accusers again in court. The case, however, was dismissed for lack of evidence. The following year, 1863, Lewis was again falsely accused, this time of stealing art supplies, and was expelled from Oberlin.

She then moved to Boston, determined to become an artist, and cultivated links with abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Lydia Maria Child, and others who knew of her from Oberlin. Within a year she had produced her first works—clay-and-plaster medallions and busts of abolitionist and Civil War heroes—and sold more than 100 reproductions of her bust of Robert Gould Shaw, the famed, white colonel of the black 54th Massachusetts Regiment. With the proceeds from sales to patriotic Unionists, the fiercely ambitious—and undeniably self-confident—Lewis financed a trip to Italy, first to Florence and then Rome, which was then regarded as the West’s foremost center for sculpture.

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Lewis would produce most of her work in Rome, where there was already a vibrant community of expatriate artists—labeled by the writer Henry James as “that strange sisterhood of American ‘lady sculptors’”—with which she became associated, but she was never fully part of its inner circle. Fiercely independent, Lewis refused to hire assistants, and taught herself to carve marble, work that was both physically and artistically demanding.

By the 1870s her studio had become a fashionable place for American tourists to visit. They were intrigued by the diminutive and charming sculptor, often attired in men’s clothing and wearing a distinctive red cap. As in Boston, she continued to make money from terra-cotta or marble busts of Civil War and abolitionist icons, as well as copies of works from classical antiquity.

She produced her first large-scale marble sculpture, The Freed Woman and Her Child, in 1866. Now lost—along with half of her 60 major works—it was the first work by an African-American sculptor to depict the subject of emancipation. She revisited the theme in Forever Free (1867)—now held by Howard University—which she dedicated to Garrison, and which depicts a man and a woman casting off their slave shackles. Among her other notable works are several sculptures of Hagar, the female slave and concubine of Abraham in the Old Testament, with whose travails Lewis clearly identified. “I have a strong sympathy for all women who have struggled and suffered,” she told a journalist in 1871.

Inspired by her Mississauga upbringing and by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha,” Lewis also created several sculptures depicting Native themes, notably The Old Arrowmaker and His Daughter (also known as The Wooing of Hiawatha), now held by the Smithsonian. She was known for her depictions of American Indians as proud and peaceful, rather than the stereotypical images of half-naked savages.

In the mid-1870s, Lewis took several trips to the United States to exhibit and sell her work. Her most notable visit was in 1876 to the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, where she was the only African American whose work was exhibited. Her dramatic, life-size piece The Death of Cleopatra was visited by large crowds and was hailed as the one of the most original and striking exhibits at the exposition. As one artist noted, “The effects of death are represented with such skill as to be absolutely repellent—and it is a question whether a statue of the ghastly characteristics … does not overstep the bounds of legitimate art.”

After exhibiting the piece again in Chicago in 1878, Lewis placed the 2-ton sculpture in storage in the Windy City and returned to Rome. Her masterpiece somehow ended up in a Chicago saloon and for a time served as a monument to an infamous gambler’s dead horse (also named Cleopatra) who was buried at a racetrack in suburban Chicago. It was discovered nearby in the 1980s, abandoned in the storage room of a shopping mall, having been painted over by a local Boy Scout troop. Following a lengthy and difficult $30,000 restoration, it now resides in the Smithsonian.

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In the 1880s, Lewis continued to work and make her home in Rome, but her style was no longer in such great demand. The neoclassical tradition of sculpture was by then being eclipsed by the Romantic themes and style of Auguste Rodin and others. Bronze replaced marble as the medium of choice, and Paris overtook Rome as the center of the art world.

Until recently, the final years of Lewis’ life were largely unknown, other than her meeting with Frederick Douglass and his wife in Rome in 1887. But in 2012, historian Marilyn Richardson—an expert on Lewis’ work—located a death notice for Edmonia Lewis, which showed that her final years were spent in London. She died there in September 1907, in her early 60s, and left behind a modest financial estate.

Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, the African American National Biography was first published by Oxford University Press in an award-winning, eight-volume print edition in 2008; a 12-volume second edition followed in 2012. As of 2015, more than 5,500 separate AANB entries are available online as part of OUP’s African American Studies Center. This biography was adapted from the AANB entry by Lisa Rivo.

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Steven J. Niven is executive editor of the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography, the Dictionary of African Biography, and the African American National Biography at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is also the author of Barack Obama: A Pocket Biography of Our 44th President.