Celebrating Black Visual Artists: Edmonia Lewis

Picture 215
Edmonia Lewis.

Born Mary Edmonia Lewis to an African-American father and part-Ojibwa (Native American) mother in 1844, this amazing visual artist is hailed as the first professional African-American/Native American sculptor. Ever. Having been orphaned as a child with her older brother and taken in by the Chippewa Indians, Lewis went on to matriculate at Oberlin College in Ohio amidst the growing abolitionist movement. She quickly emerged as an exceptional sketch artist but was forced to flee to Boston after being accused of poisoning two white classmates AND being attacked and beaten by an angry white mob. (Yes. Cheesus.)

But even the biggest obstacles can give way to huge opportunities as Lewis learned to sculpt in Boston–which led to the establishment of her own studio. Having been influenced by the abolitionist fight in Ohio, Lewis spoke volumes about ending slavery and touting the abilities and noble character of freed men and women through her artwork. (She was a friend and contemporary of Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, and immortalized Phillis Wheatley in sculpture.) She also rejected the status quo of Native Americans as “savages” by capturing their true humanity and respectability. The sale of busts and statues of abolitionist leaders and Civil War heroes funded her move to Rome where she continued her work in African-American, Native-American and Catholic themes.

The Death of Cleopatra, 1876.

The Death of Cleopatra, 1876 is considered to be Lewis’ most famous work as it commanded great attention in expositions across two continents for its naturalistic depiction of death. Viewers flocked from miles around to view the pain and sorrow etched on Cleopatra’s countenance.

From this piece alone, it seems to me that Lewis put a great deal of her hopes, dreams, emotions, realizations and self into her work. With all she had to overcome in her personal life—on top of the fact that she was a woman of color seeking to express herself artistically in a male-dominated industry in the midst of war within a nation that considered her less than human—Lewis still pushed on and triumphed.

I won’t mention how much of a shame it is that I’d never even heard this woman’s name until recently. But now, I’ll never forget Edmonia Lewis or her artwork. To learn more about this exceptional artist, click here.


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