Mary Edmonia Lewis (c. July 4, 1844 – September 17, 1907) Edmonia Lewis’s birth date has been listed as July 4, 1844. She was born in Greenbush, New York, which is now the city of Rensselaer. Her father was an Afro-Haitian, while her mother was of Mississauga Ojibwe and African-American descent. Lewis’s mother was known as an excellent weaver and craftswoman, while her father was a gentleman’s servant. Her family background inspired Lewis in her later work.
By the time Lewis reached the age of nine, both of her parents had died. Her father died in 1847. Her two maternal aunts adopted her and her older half-brother Samuel. Samuel was born in 1835 to Lewis’s father and his first wife in Haiti. The family came to the United States when Samuel was a young child. Samuel became a barber at age 12 when his father died.
The children remained with their aunts near Niagara Falls for about four years. Lewis and her aunts sold Ojibwe baskets and other souvenirs, such as moccasins and blouses, to tourists visiting Niagara Falls, Toronto, and Buffalo. During this time, Lewis went by her Native American name, Wildfire, while her brother was called Sunshine. In 1852, Samuel left for San Francisco, California, leaving Lewis in the care of a Captain S. R. Mills. Samuel provided for her board and education.
In 1856, Lewis enrolled at New-York Central College, McGrawville, a Baptist abolitionist school. During her summer term there in 1858, Lewis took classes in the Primary Department in preparation for college. In a later interview, Lewis said that she left the school after three years, having been “declared to be wild.”
In 1859, when Edmonia Lewis was about 15 years old, her brother Samuel and abolitionists sent her to Oberlin College, one of the first U.S. higher-learning institutions to admit women and people of differing ethnicities. She changed her name to Mary Edmonia Lewis and began to study art. Lewis boarded with Reverend John Keep and his wife from 1859 until she left the college in 1863. Reverend Keep was white, a member of the board of trustees, an avid abolitionist, and a spokesperson for coeducation. Despite Oberlin’s status as the first higher-learning institution to accept black women in a co-educational space with white men, Lewis was still subject to her societal position as a black woman. She, and all female students, were rarely given the opportunity to participate in the classroom or speak at public meetings. During the 1859-60 school year, Lewis enrolled in the Young Ladies’ Preparatory Department, which was designed “to give Young Ladies facilities for the thorough mental discipline, and the special training which will qualify them for teaching and other duties of their sphere.”
During winter of 1862, several months after the start of the Civil War, Edmonia Lewis was attending Oberlin when an incident occurred between her and two classmates, Maria Miles and Christina Ennes. The three women, all boarding in Keep’s home, planned to go sleigh riding with some young men later that day. Before the sleighing, Lewis served her friends a drink of spiced wine. Shortly after, Miles and Ennes fell severely ill. Doctors examined them and concluded that the two women had some sort of poison in their system, apparently cantharides, a reputed aphrodisiac. For a time it was not certain that they would survive. Days later, it became apparent that the two women would recover from the incident, and, because of their recovery, the authorities initially took no action. There is no evidence that Lewis actually poisoned the two students, or that doctors actually found any traces of poison in the bodies of Miles and Ennes.
News of the controversial incident rapidly spread throughout the town of Oberlin, whose populace did not generally hold the same progressive views purported by the college, and through Ohio. While she was walking home alone one night, she was dragged into an open field by unknown assailants, badly beaten, and left for dead. After the attack, local authorities arrested Lewis, charging her with poisoning her friends. John Mercer Langston, an Oberlin College alumnus, and the only practicing African-American lawyer in Oberlin, represented Lewis during her trial. Although most witnesses spoke against her and she did not testify, the jury acquitted her of the charges.
The remainder of Lewis’ time at Oberlin was marked with isolation and prejudice. Also, about a year after the trial, Lewis was accused of stealing artists’ materials from the college. She was acquitted due to lack of evidence, but not fully cleared. She was forbidden from registering for her last term by the principal of the Young Ladies’ Course, Marianne Dascomb, which prevented Lewis from graduating.
Minnehaha, marble, 1868, collection of the Newark Museum
After college, Lewis moved to Boston in early 1864, where she began to pursue her career as a sculptor. The Keeps wrote a letter of introduction on Lewis’ behalf to William Lloyd Garrison in Boston, and he was able to introduce her to already established sculptors in the area, as well as writers who then publicized Lewis in the abolitionist press. Finding an instructor, however, was not easy for Lewis. Three male sculptors refused to instruct her before she was introduced to the moderately successful sculptor Edward Augustus Brackett (1818–1908), who specialized in marble portrait busts. His clients were some of the most important abolitionists of the day including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Sumner, and John Brown. To instruct her, he lent her fragments of sculptures to copy in clay, which he then critiqued. Under his tutelage, she crafted her own sculpting tools and sold her first piece, a sculpture of a woman’s hand, for $8. Anne Whitney, a fellow sculptor and friend of Lewis’, wrote in an 1864 letter to her sister that her relationship with her instructor did not end amicably. The reason for the split, however, was never mentioned. Lewis opened her studio to the public in her first solo exhibition in 1864.
Lewis was inspired by the lives of abolitionists and Civil War heroes. Her subjects in 1863 and 1864 included some of the most famous abolitionists of her day: John Brown and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. When she met Union Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the commander of an African American Civil War regiment from Massachusetts, she was inspired to create a bust of his likeness, which impressed the Shaw family, who purchased her homage. Lewis then made plaster cast reproductions of the bust; she sold one hundred at 15 dollars apiece. This was the most famous work to date and the money she earned from the busts allowed her to eventually move to Rome. Anna Quincy Waterston, a poet, then wrote a poem about both Lewis and Shaw.
From 1864 to 1871, Lewis was written about or interviewed by Lydia Maria Child, Elizabeth Peabody, Anna Quincy Waterston, and Laura Curtis Bullard. These were all important women in Boston and New York abolitionist circles. Because of these women, articles about Lewis appeared in important abolitionist journals including Broken Fetter, the Christian Register, and the Independent, as well as many others. Lewis was perceptive to her reception in Boston. She was not opposed to the coverage she received in the abolitionist press, and she was not known to deny monetary aid, but she could not tolerate the false praise. She knew that some did not really appreciate her art, but saw her as an opportunity to express and show their support for human rights.
Early works that proved highly popular included medallion portraits of the abolitionists John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison. Lewis also drew inspiration from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his work, particularly his epic poem The Song of Hiawatha. She made several busts of its leading characters, which he drew from Ojibwe legend.
The success and popularity of these works in Boston allowed Lewis to bear the cost of a trip to Rome in 1866. On her 1865 passport is written, “M. Edmonia Lewis is a Black girl sent by subscription to Italy having displayed great talents as a sculptor”. The established sculptor Hiram Powers gave her space to work in his studio. She entered a circle of expatriate artists and established her own space within the former studio of 18th-century Italian sculptor Antonio Canova. She received professional support from both Charlotte Cushman, a Boston actress and a pivotal figure for expatriate sculptors in Rome, and Maria Weston Chapman, a dedicated worker for the anti-slavery cause.
Rome was where Lewis spent most of her adult career. Italy’s less pronounced racism allowed increased opportunity to a black artist. She began sculpting in marble, working within the neoclassical manner, but focusing on naturalism within themes and images relating to black and American Indian people. The surroundings of the classical world greatly inspired her and influenced her work, in which she recreated the classical art style. For instance, she presented people in her sculptures as draped in robes rather than in contemporary clothing.
Lewis was unique in the way she approached sculpting abroad. She insisted on enlarging her clay and wax models in marble herself, rather than hire native Italian sculptors to do it for her, which was the common practice. Male sculptors were largely skeptical of the talent of female sculptors, and often accused them of not doing their own work. Harriet Hosmer, a fellow sculptor and expatriate, also did this. Lewis also was known to make sculptures before receiving commissions for them, or sent unsolicited works to Boston patrons requesting that they raise funds for materials and shipping.
While in Rome, Lewis continued to express her African-American and Native American heritage. One of her more famous works, “Forever Free”, depicted a powerful image of an African American man and women emerging from the bonds of slavery. Another sculpture Lewis created was called “The Arrow Maker”, which showed a Native American father teaching his daughter how to make an arrow.
Her work sold for large sums of money. In 1873 an article in the New Orleans Picayune stated: “Edmonia Lewis had snared two 50,000-dollar commissions.” Her new-found popularity made her studio a tourist destination. Lewis had many major exhibitions during her rise to fame, including one in Chicago, Illinois, in 1870, and in Rome in 1871.
The major coup in her career was participating in the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. For this, she created a monumental 3,015-pound marble sculpture, The Death of Cleopatra, which portrayed the queen in the throes of death. This piece depicts the moment popularized by Shakespeare in Antony and Cleopatra, in which Cleopatra has allowed herself to be bitten by a poisonous asp following the loss of her crown. Of the piece, J. S. Ingraham wrote that Cleopatra was “the most remarkable piece of sculpture in the American section” of the Exposition. Much of the viewing public was shocked by Lewis’s frank portrayal of death, but the statue drew thousands of viewers. Cleopatra was considered a woman of both sensuous beauty and demonic power. Her self-annihilation has been portrayed numerously in art as well as literature and cinema. In Death of Cleopatra, Edmonia Lewis added an innovative flair by portraying the Egyptian queen in a disheveled, inelegant manner, a departure from the Victorian approach of representing death Although her white contemporaries were also sculpting Cleopatra and other comparable subject matter (such as Harriet Hosmer’s Zenobia), Lewis was more prone to scrutiny on the premise of race and gender due to the fact that she, like Cleopatra, was female.
After being placed in storage, the statue was moved to the 1878 Chicago Interstate Exposition where it remained unsold. The sculpture was acquired by a gambler by the name of “Blind John” Condon who purchased it from a saloon on Clark street to mark the grave of a Racehorse named “Cleopatra”. The grave was in front of the grandstand of his Harlem race track in the Chicago suburb of Forest Park, where the sculpture remained until it was moved to a construction storage yard in Cicero. While at the storage yard, The Death of Cleopatra sustained extensive damage at the hands of well-meaning Boy Scouts who painted and caused other damage to the sculpture. Dr. James Orland, a dentist in Forest Park, and member of the Forest Park Historical Society acquired the sculpture and held it in private storage at the Forest Park Mall.
Later, Marilyn Richardson, an independent curator and scholar of African-American art who was working on a biography of Lewis, went searching for The Death of Cleopatra. Richardson was directed to the Forest Park Historical Society and Dr. Orland by the Metropolitan Museum of Art who had earlier been contacted by the historical society regarding the sculpture. Richardson, after confirming the sculpture’s location, contacted African-American bibliographer Dorothy Porter Wesley and the two gained the attention of NMAA‘s George Gurney. According to Gurney, Curator Emeritus at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the sculpture was in a race track in Forest Park, Illinois, during World War II. Finally, the sculpture came under the purview of the Forest Park Historical Society, who donated it to Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1994. Chicago-based Andrezej Dajnowski, in conjunction with the Smithsonian, restored it to its near-original state after repairing the nose, sandals, hands, chin, and extensive “sugaring” (disintegration) at a cost of around $30,000.
A testament to Lewis’s renown as an artist came in 1877, when former US President Ulysses S. Grant commissioned her to do his portrait. He sat for her as a model and was pleased with her finished piece. She also contributed a bust of Charles Sumner to the 1895 Atlanta Exposition.
In the late 1880s, neoclassicism declined in popularity, as did the popularity of Lewis’s artwork. She continued sculpting in marble, increasingly creating altarpieces and other works for Roman Catholic patrons. In the art world, she became eclipsed by history and lost fame. By 1901 she had moved to London. The events of her later years are not known.
Lewis never married and had no known children. Her half-brother Samuel became a barber in San Francisco, eventually moving to mining camps in Idaho and Montana. In 1868, he settled in the city of Bozeman, Montana, where he set up a barber shop on Main Street. He prospered, eventually investing in commercial real estate, and subsequently built his own home which still stands at 308 South Bozeman Avenue. In 1999 the Samuel Lewis House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1884, he married Mrs. Melissa Railey Bruce, a widow with six children. The couple had one son, Samuel E. Lewis (1886–1914), who married but died childless. The elder Lewis died after “a short illness” in 1896 and is buried in Sunset Hills Cemetery in Bozeman.
She lived in the Hammersmith area of London, England, before her death on September 17, 1907, in the Hammersmith Borough Infirmary. According to her death certificate, the cause of her death was chronic Bright’s disease. She is buried in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery, in London.
There were earlier theories that Lewis died in Rome in 1907 or, alternatively, that she had died in Marin County, California, and was buried in an unmarked grave in San Francisco, CA. In 2017, a GoFundMe by East Greenbush Town Historian Bobbie Reno was successful, and Edmonia Lewis’s grave was restored. The work was done by the E M Lander Co. in London.