Edmonia Lewis aka Mary Edmonia Lewis July 4, 1844 – September 17, 1907 Nationality: American Notable: Sculptor
1844 is considered to be the year of Edmonia Lewis’ birth. But beyond that many of the details of her early life vary. It’s believed that Lewis might have chosen to change, embellish, or withhold the details of her life based on who she was sharing them with.
Lewis was her parents’ second child and was either born in Ohio or in Upstate New York near Albany in what is now Rensselaer. Her father, Samuel Lewis, was a free Black man from the Caribbean who earned a living as a valet. Her mother Catherine was a Canadian woman of African and Ojibwe descent. Catherine was creatively inclined and made cultural crafts for sale which would later inspire Lewis. Unfortunately, both of Lewis’ parents died before she reached the age of five.
Lewis and her older brother Samuel went to live with their mother’s sisters near Niagara Falls. She was immersed in the culture of her mother’s tribe. This included living off the land and making cultural crafts for sale as her mother had done.
Samuel was one of the lucky people to become wealthy during the Gold Rush. He generously provided the means for his younger sister to obtain a quality education. Lewis attended schools in Upstate New York as well as Baltimore, Maryland before enrolling at Oberlin College’s preparatory school and later the college itself.
Oberlin was regarded as a progressive school as it was one of the first to admit both female and non-White students. Lewis’s time at Oberlin remained relatively positive while she excelled during the first three years. Yet, even in this progressive for the time environment, racism still managed to mar the experience. Female students were put on a different track from male students. But most notable was an attack that Lewis suffered.
In 1862, Lewis was accused of poisoning two roommates after they became ill from drinking spiced wine that she’d prepared. Lewis was not detained while the investigations and proceedings took place and the local press didn’t immediately report on the incident. Some locals were angered by the school and court allowing time for due process rather than immediately punishing Lewis.
An outraged mob of local White men abducted Lewis when she was leaving home one winter night. The men took Lewis to a field where they savagely attacked her. Almost beaten to death, Lewis was abandoned in the field. Proceedings were delayed by Lewis needing time to recover from her very serious injuries. Ultimately, Oberlin found Lewis innocent and while she was also formally charged and prosecuted in court Lewis was found legally innocent as well.
Yet, the racially motivated ill-treatment and harassment continued. The following year, Lewis was accused of stealing art supplies from Oberlin. Some sources state she was also accused of assisting a burglar. Eventually, Lewis left Oberlin without graduating though it’s unclear if this was her or the school’s choice.
With help from her brother and a letter of recommendation from the Reverend who provided her with housing at Oberlin, Lewis moved to Boston. Intent on becoming an artist, Lewis began studying under the sculptor Edward Brackett. Naturally talented, Lewis’ skills developed quickly despite having received relatively minimal training.
She was soon able to earn money for herself by creating medallions, busts, and photographs. Having been welcomed into the local abolitionist community some of her subjects were prominent figures in the abolitionist movement. Lewis also helped to raise money for Black regiments during the Civil War. Some of the pieces she created brought her attention and helped generate publicity.
Using some of the money she earned, Lewis visited London, Paris, Florence, and Rome. She would end up spending much of her career in Rome. This was because despite her obvious talent, Lewis being Black, female, and single limited her opportunities in America. She also wanted to be known for her talent as a sculptor first rather than being noted as a Black female sculptor.
Lewis found a welcoming ex-pat community of artists as well as opportunities to learn and work while in Rome. She differed from many other artists by creating her marble sculptures from start to finish rather than hiring carvers. This was in part to reduce costs but also to maintain creative control and avoid attempts to discredit her talent. The local press took notice and Lewis’ studio eventually became a popular stop for visiting Americans.
Despite living in Europe, Lewis continued to create pieces based on abolitionists. On occasion, Lewis returned to America to raise money by selling her art. Her work continued to focus on abolitionists, Indigenous Americans, religion, and nature. Her most notable work, The Death of Cleopatra, a 3,000-pound marble sculpture was displayed at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.
Unfortunately, as a Black woman, Lewis’ work was still regarded with little respect in America. The Death of Cleopatra remained unsold after the exhibition and would be mostly forgotten until its rediscovery in the 1980s. It was found covered with graffiti and paint and is one of the few works created by Lewis that is known to still exist.
While it seems that Lewis continued to work for some time, little is known about her later life. Lewis died on September 17, 1907, her burial site was unknown until a historian found her unmarked grave in London in 2012. Mary Edmonia Lewis is interred in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery.
- Boomer, Lee. 2022. “Life Story: Edmonia Lewis (1844–1907).” Women & the American Story. July 8, 2022. https://wams.nyhistory.org/industry-and-empire/fighting-for-equality/edmonia-lewis/.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2022. “Edmonia Lewis.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. September 13, 2022. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Edmonia-Lewis.
- “Edmonia Lewis (U.S. National Park Service).” 2022. National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. May 23, 2022. https://www.nps.gov/people/edmonia-lewis.htm.
- “Edmonia Lewis Paintings, Bio, Ideas.” n.d. The Art Story. Accessed March 22, 2023. https://www.theartstory.org/artist/lewis-edmonia/.
- George, Alice. 2019. “Sculptor Edmonia Lewis Shattered Gender and Race Expectations in 19th-Century America.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution. August 22, 2019. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/sculptor-edmonia-lewis-shattered-gender-race-expectations-19th-century-america-180972934/.
- Rothberg, Emma. 2021. “Edmonia Lewis.” National Women’s History Museum. 2021. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/edmonia-lewis.
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