Person

Edmonia Lewis

Studio portrait of Edmonia Lewis seated and wearing a beret with a shawl over her top and long skirt
Studio portrait of Edmonia Lewis taken by Henry Rocher

From the New York Public Library

Quick Facts

Facing racial and gender discrimination, Edmonia Lewis overcame several barriers to achieve international recognition and acclaim as a sculptor.While her unique background often attracted as much interest as her works of art, Lewis managed to carve out her own identity as an artist. Her success paved the way for artists of color and proved that artistic genius did not belong exclusively to the White race.

While many accounts of Lewis’s early life exist, specific details remain inconsistent. Believed to have been born in 1844 to an African American father and Chippewa mother, she grew up in Greenbush, New York.2 Both parents died early in her life, leaving her to live with her aunts. With financial aid from her brother, Lewis left New York to pursue a higher education. In 1859, she arrived at Oberlin College, a school known for its liberal and abolitionist views. There, she studied art until serious allegations threatened her life.3 Accused of poisoning two schoolmates, a mob attacked her and left her badly beaten. Lewis’s lawyer, John Mercer Langston, convinced authorities to drop the charges against her due to a lack of evidence. Yet she continued to face hostility. Lewis had little choice but to leave the school after being denied the opportunity to register for a final term.4

Lewis then moved to Boston to pursue a career in art.5 The abolitionist community offered her support and encouragement. Notable women including Lydia Maria Child, Maria Weston Chapman and Elizabeth Peabody commissioned her work and gave her career advice. As her skills progressed, Lewis created likenesses of notable leaders including John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison.6 Her Bust of Robert Gould Shaw received praise from the Shaw family and established her as a well-known artist.7

Despite the support from the abolitionist community, Lewis did not want to receive praise for being “a colored girl” and felt her race limited her in the United States.8 Arriving in Rome, fellow American expatriate artists welcomed Lewis and offered her guidance. Lewis developed close relationships with this community of women including Charlotte Cushman, Anne Whitney, and Harriet Hosmer.9 Her career thrived in Rome and her studio became a fashionable stop for prominent tourists such as Frederick Douglass.10 Over the years, Lewis continued to sculpt leaders of the anti-slavery movement, religious figures, and subjects that her own dual heritage inspired. Lewis lived in Europe for the rest of her life, occasionally traveling back to the United States to showcase her art.

Little information remains about the later years of Lewis’s life. In 2012, an investigation led by historian Marilyn Richardson uncovered the burial site of Lewis in London. Initially buried in an unmarked grave, Lewis rests in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery.11

Footnotes

  1. Samella S. Lewis, African American Art and Artists (University of California Press, 1990), 40.

  2. The History Project, Improper Bostonians: Lesbian and Gay History from the Puritans to Playland (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1998), 62. Kirsten Pai Buick, Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History's Black and Indian Subject (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 4.
  3. Melissa Dabakis, Sisterhood of Sculptors: American Artists in Nineteenth-Century Rome (University Park, PA: Penn State Univ Press, 2015), 150.
  4. Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson, “A History of African-American Artists: from 1792 to the Present,” in A History of African-American Artists: from 1792 to the Present (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1993), 60.
  5. Buick, 11.
  6. The History Project, 62.
  7. Dabakis, 156.
  8. The Liberator (Boston, Massachusetts), February 19, 1864.
  9. Dabakis, 167.
  10. Bearden and Henderson, 76.
  11. Talia Lavin, “The Life and Death of Edmonia Lewis, Spinster and Sculptor,” The Toast, November 2, 2015, https://the-toast.net/2015/11/02/the-life-and-death-of-edmonia-lewis/.

Boston African American National Historic Site

Last updated: May 23, 2022