4 Feet Tall, in Men’s Clothing, She Was an Artistic Genius in 19th-Century Italy

A tiny woman, Edmonia Lewis built inspiring and relevant sculptures, some of which still live in the Smithsonian.

Edmonia Lewis circa 1870
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.

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.

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.”