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 exposition.

"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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