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Biography: Edmonia Lewis, a Black Afro-American Sculptress

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The author is an air warrior, military historian and writer on warfare and military history


A Black artist who made a name

Mary Edmonia Lewis, "Wildfire", was an American sculptor, of mixed African American and Native American 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 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 parents. It is accepted Edmonia’s father was of Haitian African descent, while her mother was a Mississauga Ojibwe and of American Indian 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 of who poisoned the 2 white girls has never been solved. Perhaps it was fiction, or somebody had tried to frame the African-American because of color and race problem.

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 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. She was very well received in Italy where her color did not matter.

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

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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 the 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. This is a bit of a surprise for a woman who was so artistic having no record of having cohabitated with a man. Her biographer Dr. Marilyn Richardson, has concluded that there is no definite information about her romantic involvement with anyone, male or female.

For long her grave was unattended till finally in 2017 it was restored. She has now been given her due as one of the great American sculptresses.


MG Singh (author) from UAE on April 27, 2021:

Tom, thanks, blacks have always been discriminated in Oscar's. But there is another side. I remember reading a interview by John Wayne in Playboy. He said -tell me one place in the world where the black man has a better life than in America. Never the less blacks are treated inferior to whites and it's not going to change. I don't know the case of Flipper.When was it?

Tom on April 27, 2021:

Blacks discrimated in Oscars, flipper first black officer unjustly court-martialled

MG Singh (author) from UAE on August 12, 2013:

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

Andrew Spacey from Sheffield, UK on August 12, 2013:

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 (author) from UAE on June 26, 2013:

Thank you purl3agony

Donna Herron from USA on June 26, 2013:

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 (author) from UAE on June 26, 2013:

Thanks ComfortB for your support

Comfort Babatola from Bonaire, GA, USA on June 26, 2013:

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.

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