I first heard about Edmonia Lewis, the Victorian-era sculptor, while reading Accomplished by Dr. Monroe A Majors. I was fascinated by her story and I just had to know more about this interesting woman! After doing some research online, I came to find that during Edmonia’s lifetime she would repeatedly recraft her own biography to suit her audience, and so little is definitively known about her to this day. However, what we do know about her is certainly inspiring, and I’m excited to share it with you here!
Edmonia Lewis Biography
Edmonia “Wildfire” Lewis was one of the first black professional sculptors. The daughter of a Haitian father (who worked as a gentleman’s servant) and a Chippewa mother (who crafted and sold Native American souvenirs), she was orphaned at a young age and was raised by her mother’s sisters in upstate New York.
With financial help from her older half-brother, Edmonia was able to attend Oberlin College where her artistic talents began to blossom and she was introduced to the abolitionist movement. While at Oberlin, she was falsely accused of theft and poisoning two white students. These charges were ultimately dropped and she won an acquittal in court, but not before suffering serious injuries when she was kidnapped and attacked by a white mob after the reports had been released. Adding further struggle during this painful time, just before her final term at Oberlin College, Edmonia was dismissed without the opportunity to complete her degree.
Edmonia Lewis Sculptures
After later moving to Boston, she began selling her artwork, including sculptures of noted abolitionists and advocates for Native Americans. It was during this time that she befriended abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and artist Edward A. Brackett, who taught her sculpture. She continued working and honing her skills while traveling to London, Paris, Florence, and Rome.
“A colored sculptress, not yet twenty-five years old, whose studio at Rome is sought by the cultivated and wealthy, and whose works command almost fabulous prices, furnishes a remarkable instance of perseverance, not only against disadvantages of sex, but the still greater obstacles of race and color.” —Dr. Monroe A. Majors, Accomplished: African-American Women in Victorian America (1893)
"Forever Free" (1867)
Edmonia Lewis and the Death of Cleopatra
One of her most recognized sculptures, “The Death of Cleopatra,” was carved in 1876 and took her over four years to complete. Now in the collections at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (along with several of her other pieces, including “Hagar”), the sculpture depicts a dramatic image of Cleopatra in the moments after her suicide. And much like Edmonia’s own life story, this sculpture took its own unique journey. It was called “ghastly” and “repellant” in an 1878 issue of Great American Sculpture, yet the piece received rave reviews two years earlier at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. In an odd twist of events, the sculpture eventually ended up in a saloon, and then as a horse’s grave marker at a racetrack before finally being rescued in the 1980s.
"The Death of Cleopatra" (1876)
“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.” — Edmonia Lewis
Edmonia Lewis Art
Sadly, many of Lewis’s works have been lost, although some of her surviving pieces can be viewed at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Howard University Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.