In 1865 Edmonia Lewis set sail for Rome. On her passport it was written, "M. Edmonia Lewis is a Black girl sent by subscription to Italy having displayed great talents as a sculptor." Lewis was the first African-American woman to be recognized as a sculptor. Yet, throughout her life and career, Lewis often said, "I don't want you to praise me...Some praise me because I am a colored girl, and I don't want that kind of praise. I had rather you would point out my defects, for that will teach me something." Throughout Lewis' career as a sculptor she was always searching for inspiration from society. And to many poets and other visual artists, Lewis offered a wealth of influence.
Early Life and Education
Lewis was born in Greenbush, N.Y. on July 4, 1844. Lewis' father was of Haitian descent. Lewis' mother, a woman of Missauga Ojibwe and African descent, was a weaver and created crafts. Lewis said that her family's background influenced much of her work. By Lewis' ninth birthday, both of her parents were deceased. Lewis and her older brother, Samuel, lived with their maternal aunts. Throughout her childhood, Lewis created and sold Ojibwe crafts to people visiting in Niagara Falls.
Lewis attended New York Central College for a brief time before transferring to Oberlin Collegewhere she began to formally study art.
Life as an Artist
Following her graduation from Oberlin College, Lewis moved to Boston in 1863 and studied under the sculptor Edward Augustus Brackett. Brackett helped Lewis develop her own sculpting tools. Soon after, Lewis sold her first piece of art--a woman's hand for $8. In 1864, Lewis hosted her first solo exhibit at her public studio.
While living in Boston, Lewis became inspired by the work of abolitionists such as Robert Gould Shaw, a colonial in the Union Army and commander of the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts. As a result, Lewis created a bust of Shaw which was purchased by his family. Lewis’ bust of Shaw was so popular that she sold 100 plaster copies of the original. As a result, she was commissioned for more work. Lewis went on to create medallion portraits of John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison. Lewis' sculpture served as inspiration to the poet Anna Quincy Waterston, who in turn, wrote a poem using Lewis and Shaw as her subjects.
Lewis arrived in Rome in 1865 and was given space to work in sculptor Hiram Power's studio. Working in a community of American artists living abroad, Lewis began working in the neoclassical style of sculpture, portraying people draped in clothe versus clothing.
By 1873, Lewis' work was widely recognized. She had displayed her work at exhibitions in Chicago and Rome. Calling herself “the Indian Girl,” Lewis’ was inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, The Song of Hiawatha and made several busts of the poem’s main characters. These busts, Hiawatha’s Wedding and The Old Arrow Maker helped solidify Lewis’ fame as a sculptor. Lewis' was visited by tourists. That same year, the New Orleans Picayune reported that Lewis had been commissioned to create artwork to the tune of $50,000 each.
In 1876, Lewis participated in the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Creating a 3,015 marble sculpture named Death of Cleopatra . The sculpture was lauded by J.S. Ingraham who said that it was "the most remarkable piece of sculpture in the American section." The sculpture, which portrayed the death of Cleopatra stunned viewers and drew thousands to the exposition. Today, the statue sits in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The following year, Lewis was commissioned by Ulysses S. Grant to create a bust in his image. Throughout Lewis’ career she also created busts for Abraham Lincoln, Horace Greeley, John Brown, Senator Charles Sumner, Bishop B. W. Arnett, John Cardinal McCloskey.
Yet, by the late 1880s, Lewis' popularity diminished. The neoclassical style of sculpture was becoming less popular amongst art lovers and as a result, Lewis' commissions began to decline. However, Lewis stayed dedicated to her work as a sculptor and found work creating altar pieces used by Catholic customers.
DeathLewis' death is not known and there are many speculations concerning her death. Most recently, historians have been led to believe that she lived in London and died on September 17 1907 in the Hammersmith Borough Infirmary. However, historians have guessed that she might have died in 1911 in Rome. Others believe that she died in California and was buried in an unmarked grade in San Francisco.
Lewis’ ability to defy racism and sexism while achieving international acclaim has served as inspiration to countless artists. Henry Ossawa Tanner , for instance, traveled and lived in Europe as expatriates just as Lewis. Here Tanner and many other artists were able to find the artistic space to create works that represented their identities as African-Americans.