Movement, Style, School or Type of Art:
Date and Place of Birth:
July 4 or 14, 1840, 1843, 1844 and 1845 (?)
Albany, New York; Greenbrush (near Albany), New York; Newark, New Jersey; Greenhigh, Ohio (?)
Mary Edmonia Lewis provided a good deal of information on her life to the London Anthenaean in March 1866. She claimed her mother was "wild" and she was "wild" too, hence her name "Wildfire." Researchers have established that Edmonia was the daughter of a Haitian father of African descent and a Odjibwe (Chippewa) mother who came from the Mississauga Indian Reservation in Ontario. Her parents died when she was young and she lived with her mother's sisters. Her brother, Samuel W. Lewis (twelve years Edmonia's senior) oversaw her education. According to Edmonia, her brother was called "Sunset."
Samuel claimed that when he went west for the Gold Rush, he had Edmonia board with a Captain Mills and attend a local grammar school. Edmonia continued her studies at New York Central School in McGrawville, New York, run by anti-slavery Baptists. In 1859, Edmonia was accepted into Oberlin College, near Cleveland, Ohio, the only college at that time which accepted men and women of color. (Samuel, in the meantime, became very wealthy and settled in Bozeman, Montana.)
Unfortunately, Lewis was falsely accused of poisoning two fellow-students in 1862 and was beaten by an angry gang. African American lawyer John Mercer Langston (1829-1897) defended Lewis in court to achieve a ruling of not guilty, but the incident seriously compromised her reputation. The school continued to harass her with false claims of stealing and refused to allow Lewis to complete her education.
In 1863, Lewis moved to Boston, where she studied with the sculptor Edward August Brackett (1818-1908). She opened her own studio to the public to exhibit her work in 1864. However, she longed to study in Rome, Italy and eventually fulfilled this ambition in 1865.
In Rome, Lewis met the American sculptor Hiram Powers (1805-1873), who offered her space to work in his studio. She also joined the "white marmorean flock," as Henry James described them: sculptresses Harriet Hosmer, Ann Whitney, Emma Stebbins and the actress Charlotte Cushman. Eventually, Lewis moved into Antonio Canova's (1717-1822) former studio in Rome, where she seems to have lived out her days. There are no written references to encounters with Edmonia Lewis after 1811.
Edmonia Lewis' The Old Indian Arrowmaker and His Daughter (1867), inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha, best exemplifies her work. She often depicted heroes and heroines of color in antiquity, American history and the Bible. Her bust of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, leader of a regiment of black soldiers in the Civil War, completed in 1865, was very popular and copies of this work financed her move to Rome.
Lewis' style emulates the smooth, clean surfaces of a style that copies classical sculptures with an emphasis on its purity of line and form. This is called the Neoclassical movement.
- The Freed Woman and Her Child, 1866
- The Old Indian Arrowmaker and his Daughter, 1867
- Hiawatha, 1868, Newark Museum, New Jersey
- Forever Free, 1868, Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
- Hagar in the Wilderness, 1875, National Museum of American Art
- The Death of Cleopatra, 1876
Date and Place of Death:
September 17, 1907, London
One of the enduring mysteries of art history, aside from her date of birth, was the date and location of Edmonia Lewis' death. (We previously listed it here as, "ca. 1911 in Rome.") New evidence was discovered in 2011 confirming that Lewis lived in Hammersmith, west of Kensington on the outskirts of London, in 1907. It was there that she succombed to Bright's disease, passing away at the Hammersmith Borough Infirmary on September 17, 1907, as confirmed by the Catholic weekly newspaper The Tablet.
Sims, Lowery Stokes. African American Art: 200 Years.
New York: Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 2008.
Heller, Nancy. Women Artists: An Illustrated History, 3rd edition.
New York: Abbeville Press, 1997.
Faxon, Alicia "The White, Marmorean Flock": Women Sculptors in Rome," Pilgrims and Pioneers: New England Women in the Arts. Edited by Alicia Faxon and Sylvia Moore.
New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 1987.