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Edmonia Lewis was the first female Native American and African-American sculptor to gain worldwide recognition, especially for her Death of Cleopatra and Hagar sculptures. She spent most of her career in Rome, Italy, where her sculptures incorporated themes associated with African-Americans and Native Americans into the dominant Neoclassical style. Mary Edmonia Lewis was the only black woman to receive recognition for contributing to the artistic movement in the United States during that time.

Young Life

Edmonia Lewis was supposedly born on July 4, 1844, in Greenbush, New York, now known as Rensselaer. Lewis’s father was Afro-Haitian who worked as a gentleman’s servant. Lewis’s mother was African-American and Chippewa and was well-known for her craftwork and weaving skills.[1]

Edmonia Lewis’s parents and their mixed cultural background greatly inspired her later sculptures.

At age nine, Lewis became an orphan since both her parents had died. Her mother’s two sisters took adopted both Lewis and her older brother, Samuel (1832).

Lewis and her brother moved outside of Niagara Falls and lived there for four years. She and her aunts sold blouses, moccasins, Chippewa baskets, along with other souvenirs for the many tourists that came to see Toronto, Buffalo, and Niagara Falls. Her brother Samuel moved to California in 1852 and left his younger sister in the care of Captain S. R. Mills. He kept contact with his sister and sent her money for her living expenses and education.[2]

Education and Controversy

Lewis started at New York Central College, a McGrawville, Baptist abolitionist school, in 1856. She enrolled in Primary Department classes during her summer 1858 term to prepare for college. Edmonia Lewis left Central College after only three years because they “declared [her] to be wild,” as she quotes in a later interview. In 1859, Samuel paid for her to attend Oberlin College. Here she changed her name to Mary Edmonia Lewis.

The anti-abolitionist sentiments directed toward Oberlin College surely exacerbated the aggressive response to the false accusations Edmonia Lewis experienced.

Reverend John Keep and his wife allowed Lewis to board with them from 1859 until she left Oberlin College in 1863. Reverend Keep was a white abolitionist who served as a member of the school’s board of trustees and advocated for coeducation of all genders and races. Lewis spent her first year in the Young Ladies’ Preparatory Department that focused on preparing the girls to work as teachers and other “duties of their sphere.” [3]

In Lewis’s third year, she prepared to go sledding with two other female classmates boarding with Reverend Keep, Christina Ennes and Maria Miles, and some of their young male friends. She served them a drink before they left and both girls became extremely sick. Physicians concluded they had been poisoned by cantharides and the girls accused Lewis. She was assaulted by a mob and left for dead and then put on trial. John Mercer Langston, a black trial attorney, defended her during the two-day trial and the charges were dismissed due to insufficient evidence. Lewis was falsely accused of stealing art supplies the following year and was unofficially expelled, so she could not graduate.[4]

Early Career in Boston

Mary Edmonia Lewis moved to Boston, Massachusetts, in 1864 and pursued a career in sculpting. The Keeps family wrote a letter to introduce Lewis to William Lloyd Garrison and he introduced her to sculptors already working in Boston and writers who publicized her work in abolitionist newspapers. She found it difficult to find a mentor and three male sculptors refused to help her before she met Edward A. Brackett. Although the relationship did not end well, she managed to sculpt many pieces under his tutelage.[5] She learned the basics of clay sculpting and her first sculptors included portrait medallions and busts of Civil War heroes and abolitionist leaders. She sold more than 100 busts of Robert Gould Shaw in 1864.[6]

Between 1864 and 1871, Elizabeth Peabody, Lydia Maria Child, Laura Curtis Bullard, and Anna Quincy Waterston interviewed or wrote about Lewis and drew more attention to her work. Edmonia Lewis believed much of it came from their support of human rights and the abolitionist movement more than an appreciation for her art.[7]

Rome, Italy

The financial success Edmonia Lewis achieved afforded her the chance to travel to Florence Italy in 1865. She met Hiram Power, the world famous sculptor, and she settled in Rome six months later. Lewis quickly befriended Harriet Hosmer, another sculptor, Charlotte Cushman, an actress, and Cushman’s friends Margaret Foley, Anne Whitney, Emma Stebbins, and Louisa Lander.

Lewis began to carve neoclassical marble sculptures after teaching herself the technique and choosing to perform the difficult task with no assistants, despite her four-foot frame. She carved many busts of famous people, including Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, Anna Quincy Waterston, Maria Weston Chapman, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.[8]

Edmonia Lewis, Hagar, and The Death of Cleopatra

Mary Edmonia Lewis chose to carve a white marble sculptor in 1868 of the biblical Hagar, the handmaiden/slave of Abraham’s wife Sarah, from the Old Testament. Since Sarah could not conceive, she asked Abraham to lie with Hagar and Hagar bore Abraham’s first son, Ishmael. Sarah resented Hagar and the boy and forced Abraham to “cast Hagar into the wilderness.” Lewis chose to use Hagar as a symbol of the African mother in the U.S. and the abuse of African women around the world.

Another one of her most famous pieces, The Death of Cleopatra, featured in the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The whole marble piece weighed 3,015 pounds and she chose to portray Cleopatra inelegantly and disheveled, in contrast to the typical Victorian depictions of the queen.[9]

Later Years and Death

Edmonia Lewis took many trips to the U.S. in her life to show and sell her work, but by the mid-1880s, neoclassical sculptures fell out of fashion with the rise of romanticism. Bronze replaced marble and Paris became the new center for creatives. Lewis stayed in Rome and the last account of her activities comes from the diary of Frederick Douglass, who recorded a dinner hosted by him and his new wife with Lewis attending in January 1887. American Catholic magazine mentioned her in a brief article in 1909, but almost no other records remain.[10]

Mary Edmonia Lewis died on September 17, 1907, in the Greater London area, England. She is buried in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery in Kensal Green, London.[11]



Buick, K. P. (2010). Child of The Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and The Problem of Art History’s Black and Indian Subject. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Mau, B. (2013). Lewis, Edmonia (c. 1844–after 1909), sculptor. Hutchins Center for African & African American Research: Harvard College.[2]

Wolfe, R. E. (1998). Edmonia Lewis: Wildfire in Marble. United States: Silver Burdett PR.


  1. Wolfe, 1998
  2. Buick, 2010
  3. Buick, 2010
  4. Mau, 2013
  5. Buick, 2010
  6. Mau, 2013
  7. Buick, 2010
  8. Mau, 2013
  9. Wolfe, 1998
  10. Mau, 2013
  11. Walton, R. (2004, May 15). Edmonia Lewis (1845 - 1907). Find A Grave Memorial.[1]

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