Edmonia Lewis – Neo Classical Sculptor and Woman of Color

Born in Greenbush, NY in 1844
Edmonia Lewis became the first
professional sculptor of 
African/Native American and 
Ojibwe heritage. Her work speaks
to emancipation and revolved
around aspects of the Civil
War and abolitionist movement.

Edmonia did not come from an affluent
family. In fact she lost both
her parents at the age of 9 and was then 
raised by two aunts on her mothers side.

Although it's hard to find 
information on her earliest
leanings toward art and sculpture
it's said her mother was a proficient
weaver and craftswomen. It was 
Lewis's older brother who ultimately
encouraged her attendance at Oberlin College 
which she entered at about the age of 15.

“Old Arrow Maker” 1872

Oberlin was one of the first schools
to admit women and people of different
ethnicities. Lewis faced racism and
discrimination and ultimately left
Oberlin after being denied the opportunity
to register for her last term there.

Lewis moved to Boston where she met
Edward Brackett who specialized
in marble portrait busts and tutored
Edmonia in sculpting having her 
re-recreate some of his work in clay.
She created a sculpture of Robert Gould
Shaw the commander of the African American
Civil War Regiment which was later 
purchased by Shaw and helped Lewis
earn enough money to eventually move
to Rome to further her studies.

Lewis's sculptures and medallion portraits
were inspired by abolitionists of the time
and the Civil War. Articles started to be 
written about Edmonia by important women
tied to this movement in New York and Boston.

In Italy she had more opportunity
and it's here where she began experiencing
more freedom and worked in the neo-classical
tradition. Her sculptures began to gain 
recognition and financial reward. In 1876
she participated in the Centennial
Exposition in Philadelphia with one
of her most recognized pieces. "The Death
of Cleopatra" Her portrayal was non-traditional
in expression compared to other representations
of the time. Additionally she was the only
artist of color invited to participate in this

“The Death of Cleopatra” 1876

There's more in depth information on Edmonia
Lewis and her contributions to the movements
she was so inspired by.  You can find her work
at Howard University in Washington, D.C., 
The Metropolitan Museum in NY
and Smithsonian among others.

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