Edmonia Lewis

Edmonia Lewis
Motto edmonia lewis original.jpg
Mary Edmonia Lewis

July 4, 1844
Town of Greenbush, Rensselaer County, New York, US
DiedSeptember 17, 1907(1907-09-17) (aged 63)
London, UK
EducationNew-York Central College, Oberlin
Known forSculpture
MovementLate Neoclassicism
Patron(s)Numerous patrons, American and European

Mary Edmonia Lewis, "Wildfire" (c. July 4, 1844 – September 17, 1907), was an American sculptor, of mixed African-American and Native American (Ojibwe) heritage. Born free in Upstate New York, she worked for most of her career in Rome, Italy. She was the first African-American sculptor to achieve national and then international prominence.[1] She began to gain prominence in the United States during the Civil War; at the end of the 19th century, she remained the only Black woman artist who had participated in and been recognized to any extent by the American artistic mainstream.[2] In 2002, the scholar Molefi Kete Asante named Edmonia Lewis on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.[3]

Her work is known for incorporating themes relating to Black people and indigenous peoples of the Americas into Neoclassical-style sculpture.


According to the American National Biography, reliable information about her early life is limited, and Lewis "was often inconsistent in interviews even with basic facts about her origins, preferring to present herself as the exotic product of a childhood spent roaming the forests with her mother’s people."[4] On official documents she gave 1842, 1844, and even 1854 as her birth year.[5] However, she was born in the Albany, New York, area, and most of her girlhood was apparently spent in Newark, New Jersey.[6] By the time she got to college she was economically privileged, because her older brother had made a fortune in the California gold rush and "supplied her every want anticipating her wishes after the style and manner of a person of ample income".[6]

Early life

Hiawatha, 1868, by Edmonia Lewis, inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha. Like Hiawatha, Lewis was of Ojibwe descent.

Based on her own often inconsistent statements, as there is no relevant document, Edmonia Lewis was born about July 4, 1844; Americans who did not know their birthday often said it was July 4. She was born free in the former town of Greenbush, Rensselaer County, New York.[7] Her mother, Catherine Mike Lewis, was mixed-race; of Mississauga Ojibwe and African-American descent.[8][9] She was an excellent weaver and craftswoman. Two different African-American men are mentioned in different sources as being her father. The first is Samuel Lewis,[4] who was Afro-Haitian and worked as a valet (gentleman's servant).[10][11] Other sources say her father was the writer on African Americans, Robert Benjamin Lewis.[12] Her half-brother Samuel, who is treated at some length in a history of Montana,[13] said that their father was "a West Indian Frenchman", and his mother "part African and partly a descendant of the educated Narragansett Indians of New York state."[14] (Narragansett Indians are from Rhode Island, and not known for education.)

By the time Lewis reached the age of nine, both of her parents had died; Samuel Lewis died in 1847[15] and Robert Benjamin Lewis in 1853. Her two maternal aunts adopted her and her older half-brother Samuel.[8] Samuel was born in 1835 to his father of the same name, and his first wife, in Haiti. The family came to the United States when Samuel was a young child.[15] Samuel became a barber at age 12 after their father died.[15]

The children lived with their aunts near Niagara Falls, New York, for about four years. Lewis and her aunts sold Ojibwe baskets and other items, such as moccasins and embroidered blouses, to tourists visiting Niagara Falls, Toronto, and Buffalo. During this time, Lewis went by her Native American name, Wildfire, while her brother was called Sunshine. In 1852, Samuel left for San Francisco, California, leaving Lewis in the care of a Captain S. R. Mills. Samuel provided for her board and education.[14]

In 1856, Lewis enrolled in a pre-college program at New York Central College, a Baptist abolitionist school.[8] At McGrawville, Lewis met many of the leading activists who would become mentors, patrons, and possible subjects for her work as her artistic career developed.[16] In a later interview, Lewis said that she left the school after three years, having been "declared to be wild."[17]

Until I was twelve years old I led this wandering life, fishing and swimming...and making moccasins. I was then sent to school for three years in [McGrawville], but was declared to be wild—they could do nothing with me.

— Edmonia Lewis[18]

However, her academic record at Central College (1856–fall 1858) has been located, and her grades, "conduct", and attendance were all exemplary. Her classes included Latin, French, "grammar", arithmetic, drawing, composition, and declamation (public speaking).[19]


In 1859, when Edmonia Lewis was about 15 years old, her brother Samuel and abolitionists sent her to Oberlin, Ohio, where she attended the secondary Oberlin Academy Preparatory School for the full, three-year course,[20] before entering Oberlin Collegiate Institute (since 1866, Oberlin College),[21] one of the first U.S. higher-learning institutions to admit women and people of differing ethnicities.[22] The Ladies' Department was designed "to give Young Ladies facilities for the thorough mental discipline, and the special training which will qualify them for teaching and other duties of their sphere."[23] She changed her name to Mary Edmonia Lewis[24] and began to study art.[25] Lewis boarded with Reverend John Keep and his wife from 1859 until she was forced from the college in 1863. At Oberlin, with a student population of one thousand, Lewis was one of only thirty students of color.[26] Reverend Keep was white, a member of the board of trustees, an avid abolitionist, and a spokesperson for coeducation.[17]

Mary said later that she was subject to daily racism and discrimination. She, and other female students, were rarely given the opportunity to participate in the classroom or speak at public meetings.[27]

During the winter of 1862, several months after the start of the Civil War, an incident occurred between Lewis and two Oberlin classmates, Maria Miles and Christina Ennes. The three women, all boarding in Keep's home, planned to go sleigh riding with some young men later that day. Before the sleighing, Lewis served her friends a drink of spiced wine. Shortly after, Miles and Ennes fell severely ill. Doctors examined them and concluded that the two women had some sort of poison in their system, supposedly cantharides, a reputed aphrodisiac. For a time it was not certain that they would survive. Days later, it became apparent that the two women would recover from the incident. Authorities initially took no action.

News of the controversial incident rapidly spread throughout Ohio. In the town of Oberlin, where the general population was not as progressive as at the college, while Lewis was walking home alone one night she was dragged into an open field by unknown assailants, badly beaten, and left for dead.[28] After the attack, local authorities arrested Lewis, charging her with poisoning her friends. John Mercer Langston, an Oberlin College alumnus and the first African-American lawyer in Ohio, represented Lewis during her trial. Although most witnesses spoke against her and she did not testify, Chapman moved successfully to have the charges dismissed: the contents of the victims' stomachs had not been analyzed and there was, therefore, no evidence of poisoning, no corpus delicti.[29][30][6]

The remainder of Lewis' time at Oberlin was marked by isolation and prejudice. About a year after the poisoning trial, Lewis was accused of stealing artists' materials from the college. She was acquitted due to lack of evidence. Only a few months later she was charged with aiding and abetting a burglary. At this point she had had enough, and left.[6] Another report says that she was forbidden from registering for her last term, leaving her unable to graduate.[31]

Art career


Minnehaha, marble, 1868, collection of the Newark Museum

After college, Lewis moved to Boston in early 1864, where she began to pursue her career as a sculptor. She repeatedly told a story about encountering in Boston a statue of Benjamin Franklin, not knowing what it was or what to call it, but concluding she could make a "stone man" herself.[32] This cannot possibly be correct: after 2+ years at both Central College and at Oberlin she certainly knew what a sculpture was.

The Keeps wrote a letter of introduction on Lewis' behalf to abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison in Boston, as did Henry Highland Garnet.[33] He introduced her to already established sculptors in the area, as well as writers who publicized Lewis in the abolitionist press.[34] Finding an instructor, however, was not easy for her. Three male sculptors refused to instruct her before she was introduced to the moderately successful sculptor, Edward Augustus Brackett (1818–1908).[35]

Brackett specialized in marble portrait busts.[36][37] His clients were some of the most important abolitionists of the day, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Wm. Lloyd Garrison, Charles Sumner, and John Brown.[36] To instruct her, he lent her fragments of sculptures to copy in clay, which he critiqued.[37] Under his tutelage, she crafted her own sculpting tools and sold her first piece, a sculpture of a woman's hand, for $8.[38] Anne Whitney, a fellow sculptor and friend of Lewis', wrote in an 1864 letter to her sister that Lewis's relationship with her instructor did not end amicably, but did not disclose the reason for the split.[36] Lewis opened her studio to the public in her first solo exhibition in 1864.[39]

Lewis was inspired by the lives of abolitionists and Civil War heroes. Her subjects in 1863 and 1864 included some of the most famous abolitionists of her day: John Brown and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.[40] When she met Union Colonel Shaw, the commander of an African-American Civil War regiment from Massachusetts, she was inspired to create a bust of his likeness, which impressed the Shaw family, who purchased it.[41] Lewis then made plaster-cast reproductions of the bust; she sold one hundred at 15 dollars apiece.[42] This was her most famous work to date and the money she earned from the busts allowed her to eventually move to Rome.[43][44] Anna Quincy Waterston, a poet, then wrote a poem about both Lewis and Shaw.[45]

From 1864 to 1871, Lewis was written about or interviewed by Lydia Maria Child, Elizabeth Peabody, Anna Quincy Waterston, and Laura Curtis Bullard: all important women in Boston and New York abolitionist circles.[36] Because of these women, articles about Lewis appeared in important abolitionist journals, including Broken Fetter, the Christian Register, and the Independent, as well as many others.[40] Lewis was aware of her reception in Boston. She was not opposed to the coverage she received in the abolitionist press, and she was not known to turn down monetary aid, but she could not tolerate the false praise. She knew that some did not really appreciate her art, but saw her as an opportunity to express and show their support for human rights.[46]

Early works that proved highly popular included medallion portraits of the abolitionists John Brown, described as "her hero",[33] and Wm. Lloyd Garrison. Lewis also drew inspiration from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his work, particularly his epic poem The Song of Hiawatha. She made several busts of its leading characters, which he drew from Ojibwe legend.[47]


While in Rome, Lewis adopted the neoclassical style of sculpture, as seen in Bust of Dr. Dio Lewis (1868).[48]

I was practically driven to Rome in order to obtain the opportunities for art culture, and to find a social atmosphere where I was not constantly reminded of my color. The land of liberty had no room for a colored sculptor.[33]

The success and popularity of these works in Boston allowed Lewis to bear the cost of a trip to Rome in 1866.[49] On her 1865 passport is written, "M. Edmonia Lewis is a Black girl sent by subscription to Italy having displayed great talents as a sculptor".[7] The established sculptor Hiram Powers gave her space to work in his studio.[50] She entered a circle of expatriate artists and established her own space within the former studio of 18th-century Italian sculptor Antonio Canova,[51] just off the Piazza Barberini.[44] She received professional support from both Charlotte Cushman, a Boston actress and a pivotal figure for expatriate sculptors in Rome, and Maria Weston Chapman, a dedicated worker for the anti-slavery cause.[52]

Lewis spent most of her adult career in Rome, where Italy's less pronounced racism allowed increased opportunity to a black artist.[2] There Lewis enjoyed more social, spiritual, and artistic freedom than what she had had in the United States. Being a Catholic, her experience in Rome also allowed her both spiritual and physical closeness to her faith. In America, Lewis would have had to continue relying on abolitionist patronage; but Italy allowed her to make her own in the international art world.[53] She began sculpting in marble, working within the neoclassical manner, but focusing on naturalism within themes and images relating to black and American Indian people.[54] The surroundings of the classical world greatly inspired her and influenced her work, in which she recreated the classical art style—such as presenting people in her sculptures as draped in robes rather than in contemporary clothing.[55]

She wears a red cap in her studio, which is very picturesque and effective; her face is a bright, intelligent, and expressive one. Her manners are child-like, simple and most winning and pleasing.... There is something in human nature...which makes everyone admire a brave and heroic spirit; and if people are not always ready to lend a helping hand to struggling genius, they are all eager to applaud when those struggles are drowned with success. The hour of applause has come to Edmonia Lewis.[56]

Lewis was unique in the way she approached sculpting abroad. She insisted on enlarging her clay and wax models in marble herself, rather than hire native Italian sculptors to do it for her – the common practice at the time. Male sculptors were largely skeptical of the talent of female sculptors, and often accused them of not doing their own work.[53] Harriet Hosmer, a fellow sculptor and expatriate, also did this. Lewis also was known to make sculptures before receiving commissions for them, or sent unsolicited works to Boston patrons requesting that they raise funds for materials and shipping.[54]

While in Rome, Lewis continued to express her African-American and Native American heritage. One of her more famous works, "Forever Free", depicted a powerful image of an African-American man and women emerging from the bonds of slavery. Another sculpture Lewis created was called "The Arrow Maker", which showed a Native American father teaching his daughter how to make an arrow.[43]

Her work sold for large sums of money. In 1873 an article in the New Orleans Picayune stated: "Edmonia Lewis had snared two 50,000-dollar commissions." Her new-found popularity made her studio a tourist destination.[57] Lewis had many major exhibitions during her rise to fame, including one in Chicago, Illinois, in 1870, and in Rome in 1871.[25]

The Death of Cleopatra

The Death of Cleopatra, marble, 1876, collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

A major coup in her career was participating in the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.[58] For this, she created a monumental 3,015-pound marble sculpture, The Death of Cleopatra, portraying the queen in the throes of death.[59] This piece depicts the moment popularized by Shakespeare in Antony and Cleopatra, in which Cleopatra had allowed herself to be bitten by a poisonous asp following the loss of her crown.[26] Of the piece, J. S. Ingraham wrote that Cleopatra was "the most remarkable piece of sculpture in the American section" of the Exposition.[60] Much of the viewing public was shocked by Lewis's frank portrayal of death, but the statue drew thousands of viewers nonetheless.[61] Cleopatra was considered a woman of both sensuous beauty and demonic power, and[62] her self-annihilation has been portrayed numerously in art, literature and cinema. In Death of Cleopatra, Edmonia Lewis added an innovative flair by portraying the Egyptian queen in a disheveled, inelegant manner, a departure from the refined, composed Victorian approach of representing death.[63] Considering Lewis's interest in emancipation imagery as seen in her work Forever Free, it is not surprising that Lewis eliminated Cleopatra's usual companion figures of loyal slaves from her work. Lewis's The Death of Cleopatra may have been a response to the culture of the Centennial Exposition, which celebrated one hundred years of the United States being built around the principles of liberty and freedom, a celebration of unity despite centuries of slavery, the recent Civil War, and the failing attempts and efforts of Reconstruction. In order to avoid any acknowledgement of black empowerment by the Centennial, Lewis's sculpture could not have directly addressed the subject of Emancipation.[26] Although her white contemporaries were also sculpting Cleopatra and other comparable subject matter (such as Harriet Hosmer's Zenobia), Lewis was more prone to scrutiny on the premise of race and gender due to the fact that she, like Cleopatra, was female:

The associations between Cleopatra and a black Africa were so profound that...any depiction of the ancient Egyptian queen had to contend with the issue of her race and the potential expectation of her blackness. Lewis' white queen gained the aura of historical accuracy through primary research without sacrificing its symbolic links to abolitionism, black Africa, or black diaspora. But what it refused to facilitate was the racial objectification of the artist's body. Lewis could not so readily become the subject of her own representation if her subject was corporeally white.[64]

After being placed in storage, the statue was moved to the 1878 Chicago Interstate Exposition, where it remained unsold. Then the sculpture was acquired by a gambler by the name of "Blind John" Condon, who purchased it from a saloon on Clark Street to mark the grave of a Racehorse named "Cleopatra".[65] The grave was in front of the grandstand of his Harlem race track in the Chicago suburb of Forest Park, where the sculpture remained for nearly a century until the land was bought by the U.S. Postal Service[66] and the sculpture was moved to a construction storage yard in Cicero, Illinois.[67][66] While at the storage yard, The Death of Cleopatra sustained extensive damage at the hands of well-meaning Boy Scouts who painted and caused other damage to the sculpture. Dr. James Orland, a dentist in Forest Park and member of the Forest Park Historical Society, acquired the sculpture and held it in private storage at the Forest Park Mall.

Later, Marilyn Richardson, an assistant professor in the erstwhile The Writing Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and later curator and scholar of African-American art, went searching for The Death of Cleopatra for her biography of Lewis. Richardson was directed to the Forest Park Historical Society and Dr. Orland by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who had earlier been contacted by the historical society regarding the sculpture. Richardson, after confirming the sculpture's location, contacted African-American bibliographer Dorothy Porter Wesley, and the two gained the attention of NMAA's George Gurney.[68] According to Gurney, Curator Emeritus at the Smithsonian American Art Museum,[69] the sculpture was in a race track in Forest Park, Illinois, during World War II. Finally, the sculpture came under the purview of the Forest Park Historical Society, who donated it to Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1994.[67] Chicago-based Andrezej Dajnowski, in conjunction with the Smithsonian, spent $30,000 to restore it to its near-original state. The repairs were extensive, including the nose, sandals, hands, chin, and extensive "sugaring" (disintegration.)[68]

Later career

A testament to Lewis's renown as an artist came in 1877, when former U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant commissioned her to do his portrait. He sat for her as a model and was pleased with her finished piece.[70] She also contributed a bust of Massachusetts abolitionist senator Charles Sumner to the 1895 Atlanta Exposition.[71]

In the late 1880s, neoclassicism declined in popularity, as did the popularity of Lewis's artwork. She continued sculpting in marble, increasingly creating altarpieces and other works for Roman Catholic patrons. A bust of Christ, created in her Rome studio in 1870, was rediscovered in Scotland in 2015.[44] In the art world, she became eclipsed by history, and lost fame. By 1901 she had moved to London.[72][a] The events of her later years are not known.[25]


As a black artist, Edmonia Lewis had to be conscious of her stylistic choices, as her largely white audience often gravely misread her work as self-portraiture. In order to avoid this, her female figures typically possess European features.[2] Lewis had to balance her own personal identity with her artistic, social, and national identity, a tiring activity that affected her art.[73]

In her 2007 work, Charmaine Nelson wrote of Lewis:

It is hard to overstate the visual incongruity of the black-Native female body, let alone that identity in a sculptor, within the Roman colony. As the first black-Native sculptor of either sex to achieve international recognition within a western sculptural tradition, Lewis was a symbolic and social anomaly within a dominantly white bourgeois and aristocratic community.[2]


Lewis never married and had no known children.[74] According to her biographer, Dr. Marilyn Richardson, there is no definite information about her romantic involvement with anyone, male or female.[75] However, in 1873 her engagement was announced,[76] and in 1875, still engaged, his skin color was revealed to be the same as hers, although his name is not given.[77] There is no further reference to this engagement, which could well be another of Lewis' "white lies".

Samuel Lewis

Her half-brother Samuel became a barber in San Francisco, eventually moving to mining camps in Idaho and Montana. In 1868, he settled in the city of Bozeman, Montana, where he set up a barber shop on Main Street. He prospered, eventually investing in commercial real estate, and subsequently built his own home which still stands at 308 South Bozeman Avenue. In 1999 the Samuel Lewis House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1884, he married Mrs. Melissa Railey Bruce, a widow with six children. The couple had one son, Samuel E. Lewis (1886–1914), who married but died childless. The elder Lewis died after "a short illness" in 1896 and is buried in Sunset Hills Cemetery in Bozeman.[15] The mayor of Bozeman was a pallbearer.[15]


Lewis's grave in St. Mary's Roman Catholic Cemetery, London

From 1896 to 1901 Lewis lived in Paris.[44] She then relocated to the Hammersmith area of London, England, before her death on September 17, 1907, in the Hammersmith Borough Infirmary.[78] According to her death certificate, the cause of her death was chronic kidney failure (Bright's disease).[27] She is buried in St. Mary's Roman Catholic Cemetery, in London.[79]

There were earlier theories that Lewis died in Rome in 1907 or, alternatively, that she had died in Marin County, California, and was buried in an unmarked grave in San Francisco.[80]

Edmonia Lewis' grave after restoration

In 2017, a GoFundMe by East Greenbush, New York, town historian Bobbie Reno was successful, and Edmonia Lewis's grave was restored.[81] The work was done by the E M Lander Co. in London.

Her most popular works

Old Arrow-Maker and his Daughter (1866)

This sculpture was inspired by Lewis's Native American heritage. An arrow-maker and his daughter sit on a round base, dressed in traditional Native American clothes. The male figure has recognizable Native American facial features, but not the daughter. As white audiences' misread her work as self-portraiture, she often removed all facial features associated with "colored" races in female portrayal.[82]

Forever Free (1867)

Forever Free, 1867

The words "forever free" are taken from President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

This white marble sculpture represents a man standing, staring up, and raising his left arm into the air. Wrapped around his left wrist is a chain; however, this chain is not restraining him. To his right is a woman kneeling with her hands held in a prayer position. The man's right hand is gently placed on her right shoulder. Forever Free is a celebration of black liberation, salvation, and redemption, and represents the emancipation of African-American slaves. Lewis attempted to break stereotypes of African-American women with this sculpture. For example, she portrayed the woman as completely dressed while the man was partially dressed. This drew attention away from the notion of African-American women being sexual figures. This sculpture also symbolizes the end of the Civil War. While African Americans were legally free, they continued to be restrained, shown by the fact that the couple had chains wrapped around their bodies. The representation of race and gender has been critiqued by modern scholars, particularly the Eurocentric features of the female figure. This piece is held by Howard University Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.[83]

Hagar (1868)

Lewis had a tendency to sculpt historically strong women, as demonstrated not just in Hagar but also in Lewis's Cleopatra piece. Lewis also depicted ordinary women in extreme situations, emphasizing their strength.[74] Hagar is inspired by a character from the Old Testament, the handmaid or slave of Abraham's wife Sarah. Being unable to conceive a child, Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham, in order to bear him a son. Hagar gave birth to Abraham's firstborn son Ishmael, and after Sarah gave birth to her own son Isaac, she resented Hagar and made Abraham "cast her into the wilderness". The piece was made of white marble, and Hagar is standing as if about to walk on, with her hands clasped in prayer and staring slightly up but not straight across. Lewis uses Hagar to symbolize the African mother in the United States, and the frequent sexual abuse of African women by white men.

The Death of Cleopatra (1876)

Discussed above.

List of major works

  • John Brown medallions, 1864–65
  • Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (plaster), 1864
  • Anne Quincy Waterston, 1866
  • A Freed Woman and Her Child, 1866
  • The Old Arrow-Maker and His Daughter, 1866
  • The Marriage of Hiawatha, 1866–67[84]
  • Forever Free, 1867
  • Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (marble), 1867–68
  • Hagar in the Wilderness, 1868
  • Madonna Holding the Christ Child, 1869[84]
  • Hiawatha, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1868[b]
  • Minnehaha, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1868[b]
  • Indian Combat, Carrara marble, 30" high, collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, 1868[85]
  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1869–71
  • Bust of Abraham Lincoln, 1870[c]
  • Asleep, 1872[c]
  • Awake, 1872[c]
  • Poor Cupid, 1873
  • Moses, 1873
  • Bust of James Peck Thomas, 1874, collection of the Allen Memorial Art Museum, her only known portrait of a freed slave[87]
  • Hygieia, 1874
  • Hagar, 1875
  • The Death of Cleopatra, marble, 1876, collection of Smithsonian American Art Museum
  • John Brown, 1876, Rome, plaster bust
  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1876, Rome, plaster bust
  • General Ulysses S. Grant, 1877–78
  • Veiled Bride of Spring, 1878
  • John Brown, 1878–79
  • The Adoration of the Magi, 1883[88]
  • Charles Sumner, 1895


Posthumous exhibitions

  • Art of the American Negro Exhibition, American Negro Exposition, Chicago, Illinois, 1940.[89][90]
  • Howard University, Washington, D.C., 1967.
  • Vassar College, New York, 1972.
  • Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, 2008.
  • Edmonia Lewis and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Images and Identities at the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 18 February–3 May 1995.
  • Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., June 7, 1996 – April 14, 1997.
  • Wildfire Test Pit, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, August 30, 2016 – June 12, 2017.[91]
  • Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists, (2019), Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States.[92]
  • Edmonia Lewis’ Bust of Christ, Mount Stuart, UK[93]


  • Namesake of the Edmonia Lewis Center for Women and Transgender People at Oberlin College.[94]
  • Written about in Olio, which is a book of poetry written by Tyehimba Jess that was released in 2016.[95][96] That book won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.[97]
  • Honored with a Google Doodle on February 1, 2017.[98]
  • Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis, by Jeannine Atkins (2017) is a juvenile biographical novel in verse.[99]
  • A belated obituary was published in The New York Times in 2018 as part of their Overlooked series.[100]
  • The best-selling novel, La linea del colori: Il Grand Tour di Lafanu Brown, by Somalian Igiaba Scelgo (Florence: Giunti, 2020), in Italian, combines the characters of Edmonia Lewis and Sarah Parker Remond and is dedicated to Rome and to these two figures.
  • She features as a "Great Artist" in the video game Civilization VI.

See also


  1. ^ The 1901 British census lists her as lodging at 37 Store Street, Holborn, supported by "own means". She gives her age as 59, her occupation as "Artist (modeller)", and her birthplace as "India".
  2. ^ a b The Newark Museum lists the date of the sculpture as 1868; however, Wolfe 1998, p. 120 gives the dates 1869–71.
  3. ^ a b c The original sculpture is housed in the California Room of San José Public Library. The statues Awake (1872), Asleep (1872), and Bust of Abraham Lincoln (1870) were purchased in 1873 by the San Jose Library Association (forerunner to the San Jose Public Library) and transferred to the San Jose Public Library.[86]


  1. ^ "Lewis, (Mary) Edmonia". Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press. 2003. doi:10.1093/gao/9781884446054.article.T050781. ISBN 978-1-884446-05-4. Retrieved 27 July 2020.
  2. ^ a b c d Nelson 2007
  3. ^ Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books II. ISBN 1-57392-963-8.
  4. ^ a b Richardson, Marilyn (2000). "Lewis, Edmonia (1840–after 1909), sculptor". American National Biography. Retrieved July 27, 2020.
  5. ^ Richardson, Marilyn (2008). "Edmonia Lewis and the Boston of Italy". V International Conference on the City and the Book. OCLC 499231062. Archived from the original on March 4, 2020. Retrieved July 27, 2020.
  6. ^ a b c d Cleveland-Peck, Patricia (October 2007). "Casting the first stone". History Today. 57 (=10) – via EBSCOhost.
  7. ^ a b "Passport application 21933". Ancestry.com. Archived from the original on 3 November 2011. Retrieved 1 November 2011.
  8. ^ a b c Buick 2010, p. 4
  9. ^ Wolfe 1998, p. 12
  10. ^ Wolfe 1998, p. 15
  11. ^ Hartigan 1985
  12. ^ "The great sculptress, Edmonia Lewis". Los Angeles Daily Herald. October 14, 1873. p. 4 – via newspaperarchive.com.
  13. ^ Miller, Joaquin (1894). An illustrated history of the state of Montana. Chicago: Lewis Publishing. pp. 374–376.
  14. ^ a b "Samuel Lewis dead". Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana). April 1, 1896. p. 9.
  15. ^ a b c d e Pickett 2002
  16. ^ Richardson 2008a
  17. ^ a b Buick 2010, p. 5
  18. ^ Buick 2010, p. 111
  19. ^ Henderson, Albert (2013). "'I was declared to be wild.' Mary E. Lewis's grades at New York Central College, McGrawville, NY". BLOG - Searching for Edmonia Lewis. Retrieved July 25, 2020.
  20. ^ Blodgett, Geoffrey. "John Mercer Langston and the Case of Edmonia Lewis: Oberlin, 1862." The Journal of Negro History, vol. 53, no. 3, 1968, pp. 201–218. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2716216.
  21. ^ Phaidon Editors (2019). Great women artists. Phaidon Press. p. 243. ISBN 978-0714878775.
  22. ^ "Oberlin History". Oberlin College & Conservatory. Archived from the original on 16 September 2019. Retrieved 2 February 2017.
  23. ^ Buick 2010, p. 7
  24. ^ Hartigan 1985; Buick 2010, p. 5
  25. ^ a b c Plowden 1994
  26. ^ a b c Gold 2012
  27. ^ a b Henderson 2012
  28. ^ Katz 1993; Woods 1993
  29. ^ Katz 1993
  30. ^ Smith, Jr., J. Clay (1993). Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer, 1844-1944. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 409. ISBN 0812231813.
  31. ^ Buick 2010, p. 10
  32. ^ "Edmonia Lewis, the American sculptress". People's Advocate (Osage Mission, Kansas). 22 June 1871. p. 1 – via newspapers.com.\
  33. ^ a b c "Seeking equality abroad". The New York Times. December 29, 1878. p. 5.ProQuest 93646081.
  34. ^ Buick 2010, p. 11
  35. ^ "Edward Augustus Brackett". Oxford Reference. Oxford University Press. Archived from the original on 2 August 2018. Retrieved 1 August 2018.
  36. ^ a b c d Buick 2010, p. 12
  37. ^ a b Chadwick 2012, p. 223
  38. ^ Wolfe 1998, p. 43
  39. ^ Wolfe 1998, p. 44
  40. ^ a b Buick 2010, p. 13
  41. ^ Wolfe 1998, pp. 46–49
  42. ^ Buick 2010, p. 14
  43. ^ a b "Edmonia Lewis". Biography.com (published 2 April 2014). 19 January 2018. Archived from the original on 2 August 2018. Retrieved 1 August 2018.
  44. ^ a b c d Moorhead, Joanna (10 Oct 2021). "Feted, forgotten, redeemed: how Edmonia Lewis made her mark". The Guardian.
  45. ^ Wolfe 1998, p. 49
  46. ^ Buick 2010, p. 16
  47. ^ Gold 2012, p. 325
  48. ^ "Bust of Dr Dio Lewis" (museum catalog record). The Walters Art Museum. Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 1 August 2018.
  49. ^ Chadwick 2012
  50. ^ Wolfe 1998, p. 53
  51. ^ Wolfe 1998, p. 55
  52. ^ Chadwick 2012, p. 225
  53. ^ a b Buick 2010
  54. ^ a b Chadwick 2012, p. 30
  55. ^ Lewis, Samella (2003). "The Diverse Quests for Professional Statues". African American Art and Artists. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0520239357. Archived from the original on 26 April 2017. Retrieved 1 February 2017.
  56. ^ "Edmonia Lewis". Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wisconsin). 12 May 1871. p. 1 – via newspapers.com.
  57. ^ Tufts, Eleanor (1974). "The Nineteenth Century". Our Hidden Heritage: five centuries of women artists. New York: Paddington Press. ISBN 978-0448230351. Retrieved 1 February 2017.
  58. ^ Wolfe 1998, p. 93
  59. ^ Wolfe 1998, pp. 97, 102
  60. ^ Wolfe 1998, pp. 97–99
  61. ^ Wolfe 1998, p. 100
  62. ^ Patton, Sharon F. (1998). African-American Art. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 97. ISBN 9780192842138.
  63. ^ Nelson 2007, p. 168
  64. ^ Nelson 2007, p. 178
  65. ^ "Edmonia Lewis". Encyclopedia.com. Encyclopedia of World Biography. Archived from the original on 2 April 2015. Retrieved 7 March 2015.
  66. ^ a b New York Amsterdam News 1996
  67. ^ a b Smithsonian 2018
  68. ^ a b May 1996, p. 20
  69. ^ Kaplan, Howard (29 September 2011). "Sculpting a Career with Curator George Gurney". Eye Level (blog post). Smithsonian American Art Museum. Archived from the original on 1 August 2018. Retrieved 1 August 2018.
  70. ^ Wolfe 1998, pp. 108–109
  71. ^ Perdue, Theda (2010). Race and the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition of 1895. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press. p. 40. ISBN 978-0820340357.
  72. ^ "Census records". nationalarchives.gov.uk. The National Archives. Archived from the original on 11 July 2018. Retrieved 1 August 2018.
  73. ^ Kleeblatt, Norman L (1998). "Master Narratives/Minority Artists". Art Journal. 57 (3): 29–35. doi:10.1080/00043249.1998.10791890.
  74. ^ a b Perry 1992
  75. ^ Tyrkus, Michael J.; Bronski, Michael, eds. (1997). "Edmonia Lewis". Gay & Lesbian Biography. Gale In Context: Biography. St. James Press. Retrieved 27 July 2020.
  76. ^ "Personals". The Boston Globe. 27 March 1873. p. 5 – via newspapers.com.
  77. ^ "For and about the ladies". Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minnesota). 29 July 1875. p. 2.
  78. ^ Richardson, Marilyn (9 January 2011). "Sculptor's Death Date Unearthed: Edmonia Lewis Died in London in 1907". Art Fix Daily. Archived from the original on 4 February 2017. Retrieved 1 February 2017.
  79. ^ Lavin, Talia (2 November 2015). "The Life and Death of Edmonia Lewis, Spinster and Sculptor". The Toast. Archived from the original on 26 March 2016. Retrieved 18 March 2016.
  80. ^ Wolfe 1998, p. 110
  81. ^ Talia, Lavin (2018). "The Decades-Long Quest to Find and Honor Edmonia Lewis's Grave". Archived from the original on 2019-03-27. Retrieved 2019-03-27.
  82. ^ Buick 2010, p. 66
  83. ^ Collins, Lisa G. (2002). "Female Body in Art". The Art of History: African American Women Artists Engage the Past. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. ISBN 978-0813530222. Retrieved 1 February 2017.
  84. ^ a b Faithfull, Emily (1884). Three Visits to America. New York: Fowler & Wells Co., Publishers. p. 312.
  85. ^ "Newly Discovered Indian Combat by Edmonia Lewis acquired by the Cleveland Museum of Art". Art Daily. 19 November 2011. Retrieved 19 November 2011.
  86. ^ Gilbert, Lauren Miranda (22 October 2010). "SJPL: Edmonia Lewis Sculptures" (blog post). Archived from the original on 22 February 2014.
  87. ^ "Bust of James Peck Thomas". Allen Memorial Art Museum (museum catalog record). Oberlin College & Conservatory. Archived from the original on 25 October 2019. Retrieved 1 February 2017.
  88. ^ Wolfe 1998, p. 120
  89. ^ "Catalog, "Exhibition of the Art of the American Negro," 1940". digital.chipublib.org. Retrieved 2021-04-01.
  90. ^ American Negro Exposition, ed. (1940). Exhibition of the art of the American Negro (1851 to 1940). Chicago?. OCLC 27283846.
  91. ^ "Wildfire Test Pit". Allen Memorial Art Museum (exhibition description). Oberlin College & Conservatory. Archived from the original on 28 December 2016. Retrieved 16 March 2017.
  92. ^ Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists. Seattle : University of Washington Press. 2019.
  93. ^ Moorhead, Joanna (October 10, 2021). "Feted, forgotten, redeemed: how Edmonia Lewis made her mark". The Guardian. Retrieved 11 October 2021.
  94. ^ "Edmonia Lewis Center for Women and Transgender People". Oberlin College & Conservatory. Archived from the original on 25 August 2018. Retrieved 1 August 2018.
  95. ^ Grumbling, Megan (20 January 2018). "Olio". The Cafe Review. Archived from the original on 16 August 2018. Retrieved 16 August 2018.
  96. ^ "Fiction Book Review: Olio by Tyehimba Jess". PublishersWeekly.com. Archived from the original on 19 February 2017. Retrieved 18 February 2017.
  97. ^ "2017 Pulitzer Prize Winners and Nominees". The Pulitzer Prizes. 2017. Archived from the original on 11 April 2017. Retrieved 10 April 2017.
  98. ^ "Celebrating Edmonia Lewis". 31 January 2017. Archived from the original on 1 March 2018. Retrieved 1 August 2018.
  99. ^ Anderson, Kristin (November 2016). "Atkins, Jeannine. Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis". School Library Journal. 62 (11): 98. Retrieved 29 July 2020 – via Gale Academic OneFile.
  100. ^ Green, Penelope (25 July 2018). "Overlooked No More: Edmonia Lewis, Sculptor of Worldwide Acclaim". Obituaries: Overlooked. The New York Times. Archived from the original on 29 July 2018. Retrieved 29 July 2020.


  • Buick, Kirsten Pai (2010). Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History's Black and Indian Subject. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0-8223-4266-3. Retrieved 1 February 2017.
  • Chadwick, Whitney (2012). Women, Art, and Society (5th ed.). New York, NY: Thames and Hudson. ISBN 9780500204054.
  • "The Death of Cleopatra". Smithsonian American Art Museum (museum catalog record). Retrieved 1 August 2018.
  • Gold, Susanna W. (Spring 2012). "The death of Cleopatra / the birth of freedom: Edmonia Lewis at the new world's fair". Biography. 35 (2): 318–324. doi:10.1353/bio.2012.0014. S2CID 162076591 – via EBSCO.
  • Hartigan, Lynda Roscoe (1985). Sharing Traditions: Five Black Artists in Nineteenth-Century America: From the Collections of the National Museum of American Art. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press. OCLC 11398839.
  • Henderson, Harry; Henderson, Albert (2012). The Indomitable Spirit of Edmonia Lewis: a narrative biography. Esquiline Hill Press. ISBN 978-1-58863-451-1.
  • Katz, William L.; Franklin, Paula A. (1993). "Edmonia Lewis: Sculptor". Proudly Red and Black: Stories of African and Native Americans. New York: Maxwell Macmillan. ISBN 978-0689318016. Retrieved 1 February 2017.
  • May, Stephen (September 1996). "The Object at Hand". Smithsonian. p. 20. Retrieved 31 July 2018.
  • Nelson, Charmaine A. (2007). The Color of Stone: Sculpting the Black Female Subject in Nineteenth-Century America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-0816646517. Retrieved 1 February 2017.
  • Peck, Patricia Cleveland (2007). "Casting the first stone". History Today. 57 (10).
  • Perry, Regenia A. (1992). Free within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art. ISBN 978-1566400732. Retrieved 1 February 2017.
  • Pickett, Mary (1 March 2002). "Samuel W. Lewis: Orphan leaves mark on Bozeman". Billings Gazette. Retrieved 1 February 2017.
  • Plowden, Martha W. (1994). "Edmonia Lewis-Sculptor". Famous Firsts of Black Women (2nd ed.). Gretna: Pelican Company. ISBN 978-1565541979. Retrieved 1 February 2017.
  • Richardson, Marilyn (2009). "Edmonia Lewis and Her Italian Circle," in Serpa Salenius, ed., Sculptors, Painters, and Italy: ItalianInfluence on Nineteenth-Century American Art, Il Prato Casa Editrice, Padua, Italy, pp. 99–110. Retrieved 1 February 2019.
  • Richardson, Marilyn (2011). "Sculptor's Death Unearthed: Edmonia Lewis Died in 1907," ARTFIXdaily, 9 January 2011. Retrieved 1 February 2019.
  • Richardson, Marilyn (2011). "Three Indians in Battle by Edmonia Lewis," Maine Antique Digest, Jan. 2011, p. 10-A. Retrieved 1 February 2019.
  • Richardson, Marilyn (1986). "Vita: Edmonia Lewis," Harvard Magazine, March, 1986. Retrieved 1 February 2019.
  • Richardson, Marilyn (July 1995). "Edmonia Lewis' The Death Of Cleopatra: Myth And Identity". The International Review of African American Art. 12 (2): 36. Retrieved 1 February 2017.
  • Richardson, Marilyn (Summer 2008). "Edmonia Lewis at McGrawville: The early education of a nineteenth-century black women artist". Nineteenth-Century Contexts. 22 (2): 239–256. doi:10.1080/08905490008583510. S2CID 192202984.
  • Rindfleisch, Jan. (2017) Roots and Offshoots: Silicon Valley's Arts Community. pp. 61–62. Santa Clara, CA: Ginger Press.ISBN 978-0-9983084-0-1
  • "Sculptor Edmonia Lewis' 'Cleopatra' revived and on view in Washington: Heritage Corner". New York Amsterdam News. 87 (22). 1 June 1996. p. 37. ISSN 1059-1818.ProQuest 390284855.
  • Wolfe, Rinna Evelyn (1998). Edmonia Lewis: Wildfire in Marble. Parsippany, NJ: Dillon Press. ISBN 0-382-39714-2. Retrieved 1 February 2017.
  • Woods, Naurice Frank (1993). Insuperable Obstacles: The Impact of Racism on the Creative and Personal Development of Four Nineteenth Century African American Artists. M.A. thesis. Cincinnati: Union Institute. Retrieved 1 February 2017.

Further reading

External links

Media files used on this page

Old Arrow Maker by Edmonia Lewis.jpg
©David Finn Archive, Department of Image Collections, National Gallery of Art Library, Washington, DC, CC BY-SA 4.0
Old Arrow Maker by Edmonia Lewis
Edmonia Lewis grave restored 2.jpg
Author/Creator: John Doe, Licence: CC BY-SA 4.0
Grave of Edmonia Lewis after restoration
Edmonia Lewis - Bust of Dr Dio Lewis - Walters 27605.jpg
Edmonia Lewis, the first African-American sculptor to receive national recognition, was born in the village of Greenbush, near Albany, New York. Her father was Haitian, and her mother was partly Native American, of the Chippewa tribe, and partly African American. Lewis attended Oberlin College in Ohio and in 1863 moved to Boston, where she received instruction from the sculptor Edward Brackett. Two years later, she left the United States for Rome. She adopted the prevailing neoclassical style of sculpture, as seen in this nude bust, but softened it with a degree of naturalism, as reflected in the rendering of the facial features. Most sculptors relied on the local craftsmen actually to carve their works, but Lewis, sensitive to speculation that she was not responsible for her sculptures, carved them personally. She had a successful career, specializing in biblical subjects, themes recalling her Native American and African ancestry, and portrait busts. Her sculpture "The Death of Cleopatra" was favorably received when it was shown at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876. Dioclesian Lewis (1823-1886) trained in medicine at Harvard College's medical department and practiced briefly in Buffalo, New York. He is remembered chiefly for lectures and publications dealing with preventive medicine and physical hygiene, as well as for his support of liberal causes, including the women's temperance movement. In 1865, he opened in Lexington, Massachusetts, the Training School for Teachers of the New Gymnastics. His faculty members included Theodore Dwight Weld, the noted abolitionist, and Catherine Beecher, sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the novel that stirred abolitionist fervor, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852).
Young Octavian by Edmonia Lewis.jpg
©David Finn Archive, Department of Image Collections, National Gallery of Art Library, Washington, DC, CC BY-SA 4.0
Young Octavian by Edmonia Lewis
Hagar by Edmonia Lewis.jpg
©David Finn Archive, Department of Image Collections, National Gallery of Art Library, Washington, DC, CC BY-SA 4.0
Edmonia Lewis's sculpture depicts Hagar, the biblical maidservant to Sarah and Abraham who was banished to the wilderness by Sarah in a jealous rage. Hagar has often been used as a symbol of survival and courage. Lewis depicts the figure wandering with an empty water jug at her feet.
Edmonia lewis minnehaha.jpg
Work based on the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem, "Hiawatha."

Sdlc (talk)

, Licence: PD

"The Death of Cleopatra" marble sculpture by Edmonia Lewis carved in 1876.

Poor Cupid by Edmonia Lewis.jpg
©David Finn Archive, Department of Image Collections, National Gallery of Art Library, Washington, DC, CC BY-SA 4.0
Poor Cupid by Edmonia Lewis
Hiawatha MET DP371840.jpg
Author/Creator: Edmonia Lewis , Licence: CC0
Bust; Sculpture
Forever Free by Edmonia Lewis (1867).png
Forever Free by Edmonia Lewis (1867), Howard University Art Gallery
Edmonia Lewis grave.jpg
Author/Creator: Lthomas2, Licence: CC BY-SA 4.0
Grave of Edmonia Lewis at St Mary's Catholic Cemetery, Kensal Green
Motto edmonia lewis original.jpg

Albumen silver print of Edmonia Lewis. To quote the National Portrait Gallery: "Edmonia Lewis achieved international recognition as a sculptor during the second half of the nineteenth century. Educated at Oberlin College, she settled first in Boston, where she created portrait busts and medallions of prominent politicians, writers, and abolitionists. In 1865 she relocated to Rome and joined an active community of American and British artists living abroad. Adopting a neoclassical style then widely popular, she found inspiration in stories from the Bible and classical mythology, as well as from African American history. Her sculpture Forever Free (1867) depicts an African American couple as they first hear news of the Emancipation Proclamation. Although Lewis enjoyed unprecedented success for several decades, she died in obscurity."


  • Image/Sheet: 9.2 x 5.2 cm (3 5/8 x 2 1/16")
  • Mount: 10 x 6.2 cm (3 15/16 x 2 7/16")
  • Mat: 45.7 x 35.6 cm (18 x 14")
Anna Quincy Waterston by Edmonia Lewis.jpg
©David Finn Archive, Department of Image Collections, National Gallery of Art Library, Washington, DC, CC BY-SA 4.0
Sculptural bust of poet Anna Quincy Waterston by Edmonia Lewis