Black HerStory Month: Mary Edmonia Lewis

Black HerStory Month is Southern Journeys' special tribute to unsung heroines in black history. We continue our Black HerStory Month celebration with a look at the life of the first African American professional sculptor, Mary Edmonia Lewis. Her remarkable talents brought her to Rome and garnered international acclaim in the nineteenth century, a time where race, class, gender and ethnicity barred many artists from success. Lewis' bold portrayal of black and Native American heroes, immortalizing figures such as Hiawatha, Phyllis Wheatley, and various abolitionists, was unprecedented and paved the way for future artists to embrace their racial identity.

Mary Edmonia Lewis (ca. July 4, 1844–September 17, 1907)

Mary Edmonia Lewis (ca. July 4, 1844–September 17, 1907)

Little is known about her early life. Elusive when it came to personal details, Lewis claimed different years of birth throughout out her life, but research seems to indicate she was born around 1844 in upstate New York. The daughter of a black father and part-Ojibwa mother, she was orphaned at an early age and as she later claimed, raised by some of her mother's relatives. Following a childhood that saw her roam the woods with her Chippewa Indian relatives, Lewis found her way to Oberlin College in Ohio, thanks to, it seems, the support and encouragement of a successful older brother.

Oberlin was a hot bed for the abolitionist movement, a facet of school life that did not escape Lewis and would greatly influence her later work. But life at Oberlin came to a violent end when Lewis was falsely accused of poisoning two white classmates. Captured and beaten by a mob, Lewis recovered from the attack and then escaped to Boston, Massachusetts, after the charges against her were dropped.

In Boston, Lewis befriended abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and sculptor Edward A. Brackett. It was Brackett who taught Lewis sculpture and helped propel her to set up her own studio. By the early 1860s, her clay and plaster medallions of Garrison, John Brown and other abolitionist leaders had given her a small measure of commercial success.

In 1864, Lewis created a bust of Colonel Robert Shaw, a Civil War hero who had died leading the all-black 54th Massachusetts Regiment. This was her most famous work to date and the money she earned from the sale of copies of the bust allowed her to move to Rome, Italy—home to a number of expatriate American artists, including several women.

Lewis' famous bust of Colonel Robert Shaw (1864), who lead the all-black 54th Massachusetts regiment during the American Civil War. Shaw's family commissioned Lewis to create this bust, whose popularity spurred many plasters.

Lewis' famous bust of Colonel Robert Shaw (1864), who lead the all-black 54th Massachusetts regiment during the American Civil War. Shaw's family commissioned Lewis to create this bust, whose popularity spurred many plasters.

Her desire to learn drove her to Europe at the age of twenty-one. There, she thrived among pioneering female artists, described sneeringly by Henry James as a "strange sisterhood." Rome offered an environment largely unspoiled by the North American society based largely on slavery and Puritan rejection of European institutions. Soon a visit to her studio was a must for tourists and she achieved commercial success. She called herself "the Indian girl" and her illustrations of Longfellow's Chippewa heroes, Hiawatha's Wedding and The Old Arrow Maker, attracted many orders. Many copies survive today in museums and private collections.

She became the first African American sculptor to celebrate Emancipation with The Freed Woman and Her Child followed soon by the immortal Forever Free and Hagar. She created popular cherubs, copies of classics, and religious works that readily sold to Holy Week pilgrims. She created a famous bust of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, also sculpting Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, Horace Greeley, John Brown, Senator Charles Sumner, Bishop B. W. Arnett, John Cardinal McCloskey, and many others. 

She loved America, but she could not live in a society that unfairly cast her as an outsider. Slighted by Americans even in Rome, she plotted to return victorious to the United States as "the colored sculptor.". Advertising Hagar in the Chicago Tribune, she became the first African-American artist to link her race with artistic achievement. She shocked and mortified those who claimed African Americans lacked the capacity for intelligence and fine art by standing next to her works and discussing them for days on end. She was the first important female sculptor to take her work to California. At the 1876 Centennial exposition, she stunned the world with her sensational Death of Cleopatra, assuring her right to a place in history. 

Forever Free (1867) represents the emancipation of African-American slaves after the Civil War. Lewis attempted to break stereotypes of African-American women with this sculpture.  Source: Wikipedia.org

Forever Free (1867) represents the emancipation of African-American slaves after the Civil War. Lewis attempted to break stereotypes of African-American women with this sculpture.  Source: Wikipedia.org

The Death of Cleopatra, a monumental 3,015-pound marble sculpture created for the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. After being lost for a century, the sculpture can now be found at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Source: Wikipedia.org

The Death of Cleopatra, a monumental 3,015-pound marble sculpture created for the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. After being lost for a century, the sculpture can now be found at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Source: Wikipedia.org

Edmonia Lewis was endowed with special gifts. Her shrewdness, creativity, perseverance, and passion enabled her to find support against all odds and ever press her case. As a symbol of courage and success, her name bonds cultural minorities in the arts. Her works are landmarks in American history, monuments to a heroic spirit and chaotic times. 

Source: www.biography.com and www.edmonialewis.com

Hagar (1868), inspired by a character from the Old Testament, was made of white marble. Lewis uses Hagar to symbolize the African mother in the United States.  Lewis had a tendency to sculpt historically strong women. Lewis also depicted regular women in great situations, emphasizing their strength. Source: Wikipedia.org

Hagar (1868), inspired by a character from the Old Testament, was made of white marble. Lewis uses Hagar to symbolize the African mother in the United States.  Lewis had a tendency to sculpt historically strong women. Lewis also depicted regular women in great situations, emphasizing their strength. Source: Wikipedia.org

Are you moved by Edmonia's art and life? Share it with others on FacebookTwitterand Pinterest using the hashtag #BlackHerStoryMonth and let us know what you think. We'll be featuring notable women in black history in our blog all February.

- SJ