At a time in America when slaves were just freed, she found inspiration in the lives of abolitionists and Civil War heroes. In a world which didn’t encourage women of color, through incredible determination and sense of purpose, Edmonia Lewis created great art and received world acclaim.
The daughter of a Chippewa Indian woman and an African American man, Edmonia Lewis was born about 1845 near Albany, New York. Her parents died when she was young, and she went to live with her mother’s sisters in Niagara Falls.
The Chippewa people named her Wildfire and taught her to make baskets and embroidered moccasins. Her brother, a California gold miner, arranged for her to enter Oberlin College in Ohio. At the school, Lewis was accused of theft and of trying to poison two classmates. Although she was acquitted of both charges, she was not allowed to graduate.
Moving to Boston, Lewis studied with a local sculptor and began selling her work. She opened her own studio, where she created a number of pieces, including a bust of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the commander of an African American Civil War regiment from Massachusetts, as well as medallion portraits of the abolitionists John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison.
In 1865 Lewis sailed for Europe, settling in Rome to continue her studies. She ended up staying there most of her life and becoming a member of a lesbian circle of American expatriates and artists (the group included Emma Stebbins (1815-1882) and Margaret Foley (1820-1877). Influenced by the Greco-Roman sculpture she saw there, she began creating works in a neoclassical style.
By the time she returned to the United States in 1874, her patrons included distinguished families in this country and abroad.
Edmonia Lewis eventually vanished from the art world.
Lewis’s surviving works include Forever Free, which was acquired by the Howard University Gallery of Art, and Death of Cleopatra, in Washington’s National Museum of Art.
Nothing is known of Lewis' final years and her death has been calcuated to have occurred sometime around 1907.
In 1996, the PBS television network featured Lewis in a "News Hour" piece hosted by Charlayne Hunter-Gault. Her story was also told by author Rinna Evelyn Wolfe in a 1998 biography titled Edmonia Lewis: Wildfire in Marble and in A History of African American Artists from 1792 to the Present, by Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson (Pantheon, 1993).
Text Attribution: Wikipedia