Edmonia Lewis- Artist, Sculptor (c. 1844–c. 1907)
Edmonia Lewis is known for her sculpture work. Although there is a lot of written work on Edmonia Lewis, very little is known about her early life. Different sources claim her birthdates to be different, but research seems to indicate it around 1844.
Born around 1844 in Greenbush, New York, Edmonia Lewis grew up to become a famous neoclassical African – American and Native American sculptor. She had gone through tremendous odd and effects of the terrorist attack, yet survived as a young woman to emerge as a successful artist in Rome, Italy.
Edmonia was born to an African-American father and Chippewa Indian mother. Unfortunately, her parents died when she was 5 years old. After her parents death, she lived with her mother’s nomadic tribe until she turned 12. Her elder brother moved to California to finance her early schooling in Albany and her higher studies in Oberlin College, Ohio in 1859. However, she was not permitted to graduate from Oberlin because of the accusations of poisoning her two white roommates. Although, she was acquitted of the charges, her career in Oberlin ended abruptly because of highly publicized trial and torture from the whites.
Edmonia’s commercial success was noted after her work, ‘Colonel Robert Gould Shaw’. The work explained a Bostanian leading the black troops in the Civil War. Notable sales of these copies helped her proceed to Rome where she mastered marble work. This happened when she left Oberlin in 1863 and moved to Boston. Her artwork was inspired by Edward Brackett- a portrait sculptor. Edmonia being talented herself, she required very little guidance, training and experience to produce a series of well-known abolitionists medallion portraits. Few of her medallion portraits featured Wendell Phillips, William Llyod Garrison and Charles Sumner.
Edmonia joined a huge artistic community in Rome. This community had many reputed women sculptors named Emma Stebbins, Harriet Hosmer and Anne Whitney. There she adopted the neoclassical style and mastered the skills in marble work. Her carvings named ‘The Freed Women and Her Child’ (1866) and ‘Forever Free’ (1867) were inspired by Emancipation Proclamation. Further followed the ‘Hagar in the Wilderness’, which she created in 1868. This artwork talked about Sarah and Abraham’s Egyptian handmaiden who was the mother of Ishmael.
In 1872, she created depiction of Narrative American through her work named, ‘The Old Arrow Maker and His Daughter’. Further in 1875, she created the more realistic “The Death of Cleopatra” for the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial. It was also displayed at the 1878 Chicago Exposition, after which it went missing for almost a century.
In 1868, in Rome, Edmonia Lewis converted to Roman Christianity. Later, she disappeared from public view in the late 80s. Her last known sculpture was in 1883. Frederick Douglass mentions meeting her in Rome in 1887. A Catholic magazine reported her as alive in 1980 and there was a report of her in Rome in 1911. Her definitive death date remained unknown for a long time.
In 2011, Marilyn Richardson- a cultural historian uncovered proof of her existence from British records. It was learned from the proof that she died in the Hammersmith Borough’s medical building on Citizenship Day in 1907, despite of 1909 and 1911 mentioned reports.