The birth date of Edmonia Lewis has been listed as July 4, 1844. She was born in Greenbush, which is now the city of Rensselaer. She was the first woman of the African-American heritage to achieve international recognition as a sculptor in the fine arts world.
Edmonia Lewis lost her parents when she was only nine years old. She and her older rother were adopted by her two maternal aunts and went to live near Niagara Falls for about four years. At the age of 15 she was sent to Oberlin College, one of the first higher-learning institutions to admit women and people of different ethnicities, there she started to study art.
After college, Lewis moved to Boston in 1864 and began to pursue her career as a sculptor. In Boston she met William Lloyd Garrison and he introduced her to already established sculptors and writers who publicized her in the abolitionist press.
Even though, finding her an instructor was not easy. Three male sculptors refused to teach her before she met Edward Augustus Brackett, who would be her tutor. He was a moderately successful sculptor specialized in marble portrait busts. Within his clients were some of the most important abolitionists of the time.
Edmonia Lewis was inspired by the lives of abolitionists and Civil War heroes. She created a bust of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, he was a commander of an African American Civil War regiment from Massachusetts; and he purchased her homage. After this she made plaster cast reproductions of the bust and sold one hundred of them at 15$ apiece. This money helped her to move to Rome.
Rome is the city where she spent most of her career. Italy’s less pronounced racism allowed increased opportunity to black artists. There she experimented social, spiritual and artistic freedom in a higher level than in USA.
She insisted on enlarging her clay and wax models in marble herself, rather than hire others to do it for her, which was the common practice. By this time, female sculptors were often accused of not doing their own work. These accusations came from male artists that were very sceptical of female talent for sculpture.
A major coup in her career was participating in the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. For this she created a monumental marble sculpture called The death of Cleopatra.
- Under the tutelage of Edward Augustus Brackett she crafted her own sculpting tools and sold her first piece (a sculpture of a woman’s hand for 8$).
- Her work is known for incorporating themes relating to black and indigenous people of the Americas into Neoclassical sculpture.
- She began to gain prominence during the American Civil War, at the end of the 19th century, she remained the only black woman who had participated in and been recognized to any degree by the American artistic mainstream.
- Edmonia Lewis
- Smithsonian American Art Museum
- Amazing Women in History
- Wikimedia Commons