Mary Edmonia Lewis was an accomplished American Sculptor who spent most of her life in Rome, Italy. She became the first African-American woman of Native American heritage to be internationally recognized as a sculptor in the world of fine arts. Edmonia’s work incorporated themes that related to black and indigenous Americas into the Neoclassical-styled sculpture. Her work began gaining prominence during the American Civil War and the end of the 19th century.
Edmonia Lewis’ birthday is recorded as July 4, 1844. She was born in Rensselaer, New York, formerly known as Greenbush. Her mother was of African-American origin while the father was Afro-Haitian. Her father died three years after her birth and by the time she turned nine years all her parents had died. Together with her half-brother, they were adopted by their two maternal aunts where they lived near the Niagara Falls. While staying with her aunts, Lewis used her Native American name, Wildfire. She enrolled at a Baptist abolitionist school in 1856 called New York Central College. While at the school, she met several prominent activists who would later influence her artistic career development.
When Lewis completed college, she moved to Boston in 1864. While at Boston, she began pursuing her career as a sculptor. Lewis was introduced to the already established sculptors in the area by William L Garrison, with Edward Augustus Brackett becoming her instructor in the process. Lewis’ work soon gained popularity, attracting some of the prominent abolitionists of the day such as Henry Longfellow and John Brown. Her work was inspired by the lives of the abolitionists and the heroes of the Civil War. Some of her works included sculptures of John Brown and Robert Gould Shaw. Between 1864 and 1871, Lewis was featured in several articles and was interviewed by several personalities. Most of Lewis’ adult career life was spent in Rome. While in Rome, she enjoyed more freedom and continued to express her Native American heritage. In 1876, Lewis participated in the Centennial Expo in Philadelphia. Her work at the expo drawn praise almost world over.
Edmonia Lewis remains one of the most celebrated female sculptors in America. Through her work, she was able to influence and indirectly promote the social standing of the Native Americans and the African-Americans. Lewis also promoted the ideals of the abolitionists by sculpturing the images of some of the prominent abolitionists such as John Brown. She also created a studio while in Rome where she kept her work such as the “Arrow Maker” which attracted tourists from Rome and beyond. Lewis held major exhibitions in Chicago, Illinois, and Rome
Lewis’ childhood was full misfortunes. First, she grew up with no parents since her parents had all died by her 9th birthday. She had to help her aunt Ojibwe sell some items to the tourists who visited Niagara Falls in order to raise money for upkeep. When she moved to Boston, she was unable to find an experienced sculptor as an instructor since most of the male sculptors were skeptical of her. While in Boston, she had to depend on the abolitionists for her work since she did not have the freedom to express herself through her work.
Death and Legacy
Edmonia Lewis moved to Hammersmith area in London from Rome. She died on September 17, 1907, from chronic Bright’s disease. Her remains were buried at Saint Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery. Lewis will always be remembered for her work as a sculptor. In 2002, she was named among the 100 Greatest African-Americans by scholar Molef Kete Asante.
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