|Edmonia surprised many of her colleagues by refusing to take on assistants and completing all of the physically demanding acts of sculpting herself, despite being only four feet tall (x).
The very first Black woman to break into the world of the fine arts passed away on this day in 1907. A sculptor and an artist, Edmonia Lewis was also of Native American descent and would reach international fame by the time of her death.
Mary Edmonia Lewis was born on July 4, 1844 to an Afro-Haitian father and a mother of Mississauga Ojibwe and African-American descent. Together with Edmonia’s half-brother, the family made up a small portion of the free Black community in Greenbush, New York. Her mother was known to be an excellent weaver and artist in her own right, while her father worked as a servant. Sadly, both of Edmonia’s parents had passed away when she was only nine years old and both she and her brother moved to live with their aunts near Niagara Falls. She would go on to study art at both New-York Central College, McGrawville and Oberlin College.
Struck by the beauty of a public statue of Benjamin Franklin, Edmonia chose to specialize in sculpting and soon moved to Boston to master her craft. However, finding a mentor was difficult as a woman of color. After many rejections, Edward Augustus Brackett agreed to take Edmonia on as an apprentice. Through their association, Edmonia soon began working with some of the most premier abolitionists of the day such as William Lloyd Garrison and Charles Sumner. In 1866, she made the move to Rome and opened up her own studio. It was in Rome where Edmonia’s career would flourish.
By 1873, she was being paid up to $50,000 for commissions and was even invited to present at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.
Death of Cleopatra, which Edmonia presented at the 1876 Centennial Exposition. While Cleopatra had been the subject of many other white male sculptors’ works, it was shocking for the public to see a Black woman’s take on one of the most famous African women in history (x).
In Rome, Edmonia was a member of a circle of fellow expatriate artists, specifically Charlotte Cushman’s circle of women artists. The majority of the women in Edmonia’s circle were lesbians, with Charlotte and her partner Emma Stebbins as the head of the pack. For this reason, most historians have concluded that Edmonia must have also engaged in relationships with women. Her proclivity for “men’s clothing” and dressing against 19th century gender norms is just further proof of her involvement in the LGBT social circles in Rome. Tragically, Edmonia was forced to leave her friends and what little hub of community she had found in Rome after finding a lump in her breast. She moved to England for medical treatment and passed away from Bright’s disease on September 17, 1907. Buried at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery in London, Edmonia remains a crucial figure in art history.