Edmonia Lewis thought she found her place. It was Ohio in the 1860s, and she had enrolled at Oberlin College, an institution known for progressive thinking and welcoming of women and marginalized groups—both traditionally shunned by higher education.
Lewis, who was of Black and Native American descent, struggled with discrimination based on her gender and ethnicity. Oberlin promised a break from it. Instead, her time in college became the most difficult time of her life. Whatever philosophies Oberlin’s administrators espoused had little to do with the racism that flowed through the country and down the hallways of the school.
Two white students accused Lewis of putting drugs in their drinks. When this matter was resolved, she was abducted and beaten in apparent retaliation for the alleged poisoning. After Lewis recovered, further uproar ensued: she was accused of stealing art supplies and prevented from registering for her final semester.
The exams would make them – not break them. Learning the craft of sculpture, creating works and expressing her personality through sculpture became her life’s work. Rather than be intimidated by the prejudices of the era, Lewis carved her own identity in clay and marble, transcending her turbulent experiences to become one of the most renowned sculptors of the 19th century.
Edmonia was the middle name of May Lewis, who was born in 1844 near Albany, New York. A lack of records — and Lewis is an unreliable narrator of her own life — makes it difficult to offer any conclusive statements, but it’s widely believed that she was born to a black father and a mother who was part of Chippewa.
After the death of her parents (cause unknown), she was raised by her aunts and cared for by a half-brother who had the financial means to provide her with a good education. She ended up at Oberlin where the promise of a quality education was tarnished by her experience. After she was accused of poisoning two white students, prominent attorney (and Oberlin graduate student) John Mercer Langston agreed to defend her in the indictment and was acquitted due to lack of evidence. The beatings she received from unknown assailants while awaiting trial were said to be so severe that her captors left her for dead. The ongoing theft allegations prompted Lewis to leave Oberlin; It was clear that the situation would only get worse.
She traveled to Boston to continue her studies in art and sculpture Noted sculptor Edward Brackett spotted her innate talent and offered to train her. While in Boston, Lewis made medallions of well-known abolitionists and learned what she could, although she could not afford the anatomy classes normally open to white male sculptors. She used Brackett’s bust of John Brown as a model for the lockets she sold.
Her ultimate goal was to go to Rome – the center of some of the finest sculpting of the time – to continue work in the Neoclassical movement, in which artists adopted the approach of iconic Greek and Roman sculptors. Lewis was able to achieve this when copies of her bust of abolitionist and Civil War Union colonel Robert Gould Shaw (a white officer who led a black regiment and died during the war) sold for a high enough price was to pay for her travel expenses.
In Rome, Lewis found opportunity and mentorship, but also had to tread carefully. While many sculptors had a team of assistants to help them carve stones, she avoided them, fearing critics would give her too much credit or label the work as not hers. But she couldn’t escape scrutiny: people criticized her decision to live in a shared apartment with other American (and white) sculptors. Author Henry James (The rotation of the screw) noted that Lewis’ skin color, not her talent, “was the pleading reason for her fame.”
Indeed, many portraits of Lewis in the media focused on how unusual it was to have a black female sculptor in the picture. The patronizing portrayal angered her – Lewis said she moved to Rome to avoid such misguided scrutiny. “I was practically driven to Rome,” she told a reporter, “to take advantage of the arts and culture opportunities and to find a social atmosphere where I wasn’t constantly reminded of my color. The land of liberty had no place for a colored sculptor.”
It is possible that Lewis became so disillusioned with such false characterizations that she began to toy with her own biography, sometimes claiming she first became interested in sculpture when she saw a statue of Benjamin Franklin in Boston and decided it would be fun to make a “stone man” yourself. Other times, she claimed she grew up fishing and lived off the land. If people wanted to assume Lewis was uneducated or naïve, she seemed willing to provide fodder.
But even a cursory glance at Lewis’ efforts showed that they were filled with talent, drive and an incredibly personal ambition. One of her key pieces during this period was Forever free, depicting a black enslaved man holding his arm up, broken manacles dangling from his wrist. Busts of Abraham Lincoln and Henry Wordsworth Longfellow followed. A converted Catholic, Lewis also produced pieces with religious resonance, including busts of Jesus Christ and Madonna and Child.
In time, Lewis’s work spoke loud enough for her that few could dismiss it. In Rome she was visited by Frederick Douglass and Ulysses S. Grant. A piece could fetch her thousands of dollars—a hefty sum in the 19th century.
But Lewis’s defining work would come when she returned to the United States in time for the country’s centennial.
Lewis had admirers across the States and would often travel back to arrange for the sale of her pieces. She made her debut at the 1876 centenary in Philadelphia The Death of Cleopatra. It was a triumph aesthetically – a £3000 study that ruled the eye. Like most fine arts, it has been celebrated and defamed in equal measure.
The Death of Cleopatra depicts the Egyptian queen in the moments after her death, a bare chest bared from her clothing. Critics accused it of being morbid and tasteless; others considered it a highlight of the centenary art exhibition.
For Lewis, it was a sense of vindication. At the exhibition, she saw other works that were rejected by the committee. When Cleopatra was unwrapped, she froze. “I was barely breathing,” she said. “I felt like I was nothing. They opened the box, looked at the work, talked for a moment, and then I heard an order to place it in such a place.”
After their success at the centenary, Lewis continued to create and travel, drawing inspiration from their places. She moved to Paris in 1896 and to London in 1891. She remained there until her death from kidney disease in 1907.
While Lewis’ death heralded life, it seemed to reassure her supporters. Her grave was unmarked and many of her works have been lost. Those that did show up were sometimes perceived as neglected. In 2003 Sotheby’s was auctioned off Night, a sculpture of two slumbering infants said to be heavily stained with nicotine. The Baltimore Museum of Art bought it for $130,720.
In 2015, Lewis’ bust of Jesus was discovered in a closet in Scotland. It once belonged to John Patrick Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute, who was an admirer of Lewis when she created the piece in 1870. (Crichton-Stuart was Catholic and a staunch advocate of women’s rights, which likely led to his support.) The bust remained in private ownership until a few years ago, where its discovery helped renew interest in Lewis and her work.
Unbelievable, The Death of Cleopatra had a much more unworthy fate. After it was displayed at the centenary, Lewis couldn’t afford to ship the massive piece back to Rome and had to leave it behind. Without being in the care of an art lover or collector, the sculpture ended up in a saloon and was later used to mark a horse’s grave at a racetrack, where graffiti was covered over by common house paint. Lewis biographer Marilyn Richardson eventually tracked down the piece in the storage room of a suburban mall. After its rescue, the sculpture was eventually sent to the Smithsonian.
Also that year, an Edmonia Lewis stamp was released as part of the USPS Black Heritage Stamp series in association with the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Whether or not more of her work is discovered, it seems the world is unlikely to forget Edmonia Lewis’ contributions.