A Brief Life of Edmonia Lewis

What follows is a short biographical essay on Edmonia Lewis’s life, meant as a synthesis of the archival research that others have done, but also as a way of showing how she fits more broadly into “history” (You can follow this link to skip directly to the end of the essay for resources that give you more–or, if you wish, less!–information about her life.)

Edmonia Lewis’s story has sometimes frustrated her biographers—it has such a murky beginning and ending that you could say it consists only of a middle. There are very few personal documents and only a handful of photographs, since she died virtually forgotten. Most of what we know about her relates to the height of her career, to the late the 1860s and the 1870s, with a bit more information still emerging about the 1880s and 1890s. But one thing is sure: no one can tell her story without addressing the history of race and racism in America, and the way in which it shaped the way she was seen during her years in the spotlight, as the single dot in a Venn diagram of unlikely artist profile: the only internationally known Black and Indigenous female sculptor of the 19th century.

Mary Edmonia Lewis was born a free black woman, perhaps in 1844, but more likely earlier, in upstate New York (in a village then called Greenbush, now Rensselaer). Her mother had Black and Ojibwa ancestry, and her father was Black; he had at one time lived in Haiti—although it is not clear whether he was Haitian or American, whether he had ever been enslaved or not, or what precisely his own ancestry was. Lewis herself always emphasized that she had no white forebears at all, but we do not know how much she actually knew about her family’s past. She had an older brother, Samuel, although they may not have shared the same mother. The family seems to have lived in the Albany area for a while, and possibly in New Jersey, but the children were orphaned by the time Samuel was about 12 and Edmonia still under the age of 10. After that time, they lived with her Ojibwa (then typically called Chippewa) relatives near Niagara Falls for a few years. Lewis liked to tell interviewers a romantic story of a wild and free childhood among “the Indians,” but there are no records to trace where exactly she lived–perhaps in an Ojibwa tribal community, or, as her biographer Albert Henderson thinks, with Mohawks in upstate New York, who sometimes took in Ojibwa. But according to her own account, Lewis helped her aunts craft and sell baskets and trinkets to sell to white tourists, who had been flocking to Niagara Falls since the beginning of the century. Meanwhile, her older brother Samuel, who had become a barber, went to the West Coast in the early 1850s along with so many others drawn by the Gold Rush. He invested in gold mining and became a wealthy man who later settled in Bozeman, Montana and was apparently in a position to pay for Edmonia to board with a family in upstate New York, and to get an education. As far as scholars know, she never had contact with the Native American side of her family again. This is partly why she is so often referred to as primarily a Black sculptor, but she herself stressed her dual ancestry with varying emphasis on the one “side” or the other, both in her interviews and in her work.

In the mid-1850s, presumably with her brother’s help, Edmonia Lewis was able to attend New York Central College from 1856 to 1858. The college, founded in McGrawville (today’s village of McGraw, in central New York State), was one of only two progressive institutions of higher education in the nation that accepted Black students and female students before the Civil War—and the very first school ever to have a Black professor among the faculty. Marilyn Richardson’s research on this time in Lewis’ life provides some detail: she would have been one of 109 students in 1856, of whom 18 were Black and ten (unlike herself) formerly enslaved, and about half of whom were women. It’s hard to overstate how unusually progressive that made the school, where she attended the high-school division (or “Primary Department”), designed to prepare students for college courses. She would have become very familiar with the abolitionist cause at Central College—anti-slavery activists had been instrumental in founding the school in 1848 and often came to speak there; after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, the school became part of the Underground Railroad. She herself never spoke of the political impact her two years at McGrawville had, and we do not know much about her time at the college–except that, as the Hendersons note, she actually got very good grades, even as she herself claimed in an interview that she was too wild: “They could do nothing with me,” she told Henry Wreford when he interviewed her for the Athenaeum in 1866. Central College hadn’t been financially stable even in its best days and closed its doors shortly after Lewis left in 1858, having educated about 1,500 students during the roughly 10 years it was in existence. But it is likely that some of the abolitionist activists she met there encouraged her to continue her schooling, because in 1859, she started at Oberlin College in Ohio, probably again with financial help from her brother, and perhaps also from some of these abolitionist activists.

Oberlin was another unusually progressive institution associated with abolitionism and egalitarianism. Founded in 1833, it was one of the earliest colleges in the US to admit black students (as of 1835) and female students (as of 1837), and there was a strong presence of abolitionist activists on campus. Arriving here on the eve of the Civil War, she would have expected a welcoming and supportive atmosphere, even though as a young woman with Black and Native American roots, she would still have been an atypical student. By the Hendersons’ estimate, she was one of about 30 Black students on a campus of about 1,000, and although the college was co-educational, the curriculum for men and women was not at all the same, as her school records make clear: Lewis attended the Young Ladies’ Preparatory Department and then the Young Ladies’ Department from 1859 to 1863, while living with the family of the white abolitionist James Keep, who kept a kind of guest house for female students. She was not, however, the “poor orphan” that some of the interviews and newspaper stories later made her out to be–her brother supplied her “after the style and manner of a person of ample income” (John Mercer Langston, 172).

But the progressive atmosphere at Oberlin was not enough to keep racial prejudice and racist violence at bay. In January of 1862, three years into her studies, Lewis’ life was disrupted by a horrifying series of events. First, there was a scandal: She was accused of having poisoned two of her white, female classmates with Spanish Fly, an aphrodisiac, when serving them mulled wine (in a dry town, no less), before the two were going on a sleigh ride with their young men. But within days of being accused of the poisoning by the two women, and with the investigation still pending, she was abducted, brutally beaten, stripped naked and left for dead near the Keeps’ house. Several biographers have speculated that she was very likely raped, but we will never know, since the surviving records do not reveal what would have been a very difficult topic to broach publicly, and she herself never addressed this event in any of her interviews. Her attackers, allegedly townspeople rather than fellow college students, were never identified. The reason we know as much as we do is that her defense attorney, John Mercer Langston, later included his version of her story in his 1894 memoirs (he doesn’t mention her by name, but he calls her “the first artist of the negro race of the Western continent” at one point, so he was hardly keeping her secret). Langston was himself an Oberlin alum who broke all kinds of barriers: he became the first Black lawyer to be called to the bar in 1854, and was apparently brought in by James Keep to defend Lewis. She was exonerated because Langston could point to the fact that there was no proof of the poisoning–and for the time being, she remained at Oberlin. A year later, though, in February of 1863, she was accused of stealing art material from a classroom, and although she was (again) cleared, she was apparently denied re-admittance in the spring of 1863. But perhaps she had simply had enough of Oberlin and left on her own accord, heading via New York City to Boston.

While the circumstances of her departure from Ohio are murky, we know that she had met the already-famous Frederick Douglass at Oberlin (and possibly already at Central College), and that he had encouraged her to go to the East coast and possibly study abroad. She arrived in Boston–not penniless, as many early biographers claim, but presumably again with support from her brother, and with letters from her Oberlin friends and supporters that would get her an introduction to the well-known white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and his larger circle. It is not clear what her goals were when she got to Boston—she liked to tell the story that seeing a bronze statue of Benjamin Franklin in front of the Old City Hall building (cast in the 1850s by Richard Greenough, the less famous brother of the sculptor Horatio Greenough) inspired her to become a sculptor. She had had only limited art instruction at Oberlin and at Central College, because the fine arts were not a major focus at either school at the time. Even when she came to Boston, she only briefly trained under a local sculptor, Edward Brackett. But, possibly supported by her brother and/or by a range of abolitionist patrons who wanted to support her endeavor, she opened a studio at a prominent Boston location on Fremont St., where she made portrait medallions and then portrait busts of abolitionist heroes like John Brown (as Brackett had also done). Plaster busts, made from a cast and easily reproduced, were popular and not that expensive to make or buy, and hers seem to have sold well. Her work became quite well known after she made a commemorative bust shortly after the death of Robert Gould Shaw, the adored white Bostonian commander who led the Black 54th Regiment in the Civil War and had been killed at Fort Wagner near Charleston in July of 1863 (a story you may know from the 1989 movie “Glory”).

While some white abolitionists clearly took to Lewis and wanted to support her, others were more equivocal and seemed to think she was a mediocre artist whose art was interesting only because a Black woman sculptor was so unusual. She was clearly bracketed as one of the noteworthy “extraordinary Negroes” that white abolitionists often patronized and highlighted in ways that are racist even as they were staunchly anti-slavery (Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning is incredibly helpful in unpacking the contradictions in the views of white and occasionally even Black abolitionists, so I am relying on his analysis and use his phrasing here). Especially the famous female abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, who early on wrote several articles in praise and support of Lewis as such an extraordinary Black woman, harbored quite a bit of racist prejudice that she expressed in condescending private letters. She also seems to have thought that Lewis’ uncommissioned bust of Robert Gould Shaw was inappropriately capitalizing on the nation’s and his family’s grief. Likewise, the white female sculptor and poet Anne Whitney, who befriended her in Boston and later in Rome, was at times hostile in her comments behind Lewis’ back.

But Lewis was in no position to either ignore (or even argue with) these potential supporters, however patronizing or backhanded, because her potential patrons were predominantly white liberals guided by them. Even purchasing the cheaper plaster casts was a middle-class endeavor, and owning a prestigious marble sculpture required private wealth. Only very few free Black people in the North, or newly freed Southern Blacks, would have had the kind of money to buy her art–although some clearly participated in collective funding by subscription, a sort of forerunner to crowdfunding that was often used for art commissioned by churches or associations. Later on, some of Lewis’ work would be purchased that way, but initially, her busts of Colonel Shaw and other sculptures were mostly bought by white art enthusiasts who supported abolitionism and emancipation. Her success encouraged (and financially enabled) her to do what almost every American artist of the time did in order to study art and gain prestige: travel to Europe and study the Old Masters. After the end of the Civil War, she departed for Italy–but not until after a very brief stint of teaching formerly enslaved people in Virginia in the summer of  1865.

Unfortunately, almost no information survived about the month she spent in Richmond, Virginia, except that she and another young woman joined the cohort of the many Northern women, Black and white, who were intent on helping to educate formerly enslaved people of all ages in the South. A newspaper report tells us that her trunks were broken into and her clothes were stolen, and that she left soon afterwards–but we do not know what her plans had been: Had she meant to stay longer to help combat the wide-spread illiteracy that slavery had enforced, or was this always just a summer experiment? Was she elated to be part of Reconstruction in the South and the possibilities that came with the new legal rights that for Black people that were being instituted (only to be curtailed again less than 10 years later)? How did she react to the situations in post-Civil War Virginia and the stories of her recently freed Black students, given that as a free woman of some means from the North, she had never been to the South before? She had also never worked as a teacher, as far as we know–maybe she found out she hated teaching; maybe she realized it would not be compatible with pursuing her career as an artist. We just don’t know.

What we do know is that by late August, she was on her way to Europe, and in September, she arrived in Florence, where she spent the fall before settling in Rome in early 1866. She was to live there for over twenty years, at least into the late 1880s, although she often traveled back to the US to exhibit and sell her work all over the country–on one occasion, traveling all the way to California to present one-woman shows of her work in San Francisco and San Jose. Over time, she made Italy her home, and when Frederick Douglass and his second wife, Helen, visited her in Rome in 1887, he noted in his journals that “constantly speaking Italian has somewhat impaired her English.” In interviews, she often stressed that she felt more comfortable in Italy than in the US. It would be wrong to think that there was no racist prejudice in Italy, or that she felt as welcome or free as some 20th-century expat writers and artists described later (James Baldwin, for example). But like the small handful of other 19th-century African-American artists who lived in Europe for a time (Robert Duncanson before her and Henry Ossawa Tanner after her are the most famous of these; see Black Artists in the 19th century), racism felt much more pernicious in the US than in Europe. Scholars writing about Lewis have speculated that this was partly because instead of being singled out for her racial background, she instead experienced “otherness” on many different levels at once, in a country where all Americans were looked on as strangers, and female artists in particular were a great oddity.

It is important to stress that Lewis was not at all unusual in settling in Italy–many American artists, writers, and intellectuals, mostly people of independent means or with wealthy patrons, had begun living there by the mid-19th century, and this community, together with a number of British expats, formed a sort of English-language comfort zone for new arrivals like Lewis in 1865. Although Florence had long been one hub for artists from all over, quite a lot of additional American artists had settled in Rome in the years around the unification of Italy (which officially was declared a kingdom in 1860, but was not fully united until Rome became officially part–and capital–of Italy in 1870). There was even a small but famous group of American women sculptors, who clearly felt much more free to work on their art and much more accepted, despite their unusual profession, than they did in the US. These women have attracted new interest and generated new scholarship in recent years (see Melissa Dabakis’ and Charmaine Nelson’s books in Resources) after often being ridiculed in their time by the likes of Henry James, who mockingly called them “the white marmorean flock,” even as their work sold well and was internationally famous for a while in the mid-19th century. Among these were Anne Whitney (who knew Edmonia Lewis from Boston) as well as Harriet Hosmer and Vickie Reams, all of them competing with the much more famous male sculptors from America who also lived in Rome, like William Whetmore Story, and in nearby Florence, Thomas Ball and Hiram Powers. Powers, at the time America’s most celebrated sculptor, was actually one of the first artists to welcome Lewis into this expat community, and she spent several months in Florence before renting a studio–a famous one formerly occupied by the Italian sculptor Canova–in Rome in early 1866.

Edmonia Lewis seems to have been more on the fringes rather than at the center of the colony of expat Americans in Rome, even among the smaller fringe group of women sculptors. Henry James described her patronizingly as the “flock’s” only “negress, whose colour, picturesquely contrasting with that of her plastic material, was the pleading agent of her fame” (James, William Whetmore Story, 257 and 258). This epitomizes the fact that she was never able to escape the kind of attitude toward race and skin color that would make critics highlight the contrast between the white marble (and plaster) she worked with and her own dark skin, often implying, like James does here, that her “fame” was all about her race, rather than about anything her craft, her style, or her subject matter–a familiar accusation (and source of frustration) for so many artists of color all the way to today. But she was clearly undeterred and put her notoriety to her advantage. She welcomed opportunities to be interviewed by journalists and art critics during those years, and promoted herself as a Black woman sculptor with her cartes de visite–her photographic business cards. She was able to sell quite a bit of her work because British and American tourists regularly came to tour artists’ studios in Rome (and hers was specifically mentioned in tourist guidebooks of the time, for example in the famous Murray’s Handbooks for Travelers, as early as 1869). In other words, she put up with and even literally banked on the fact that many of those tourists and journalists came to visit her, circus-freak style, because she was triply unusual: a woman sculptor, a Black artist, a Native American artist.

But it’s always a complicated question what mix of motivations prompted Lewis to address her racial and ethnic identities in her sculptures: because she wanted to raise awareness about Native Americans and Black Americans; because she wanted to sell her work and this kind of work generated most interest; because she could not escape the role into which she was typecast as a Black and Native American woman sculptor? Nothing in the response to her work suggests that it was politically or stylistically controversial. But the fact is that her most famous works both then and again now were the sculptures that people could directly tie to her ethnicity. There is her famous Emancipation sculpture Forever Free from 1867, but she also continued to make portrait busts of white abolitionists and other prominent supporters of racial equality. There are also several sculptures that address Native American themes, though they only very loosely related to Lewis’ Ojibwa roots (see Discovering More, and Kirsten Buick’s chapter on these works on the Resource page). Other works allude to African-American (and possibly Native American concerns) more obliquely: For example, Hagar in the Wilderness, begun in 1868, represents an Old Testament figure, a female slave to Abraham who is exiled, but very likely alludes to the sufferings of women and of the formerly enslaved in the US who had been so recently freed. And the 1876 Death of Cleopatra, her most ambitious sculpture, is possibly a comment about the crushed hopes of the Reconstruction era. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that other works, whether commissioned or not, have no apparent link to her ethnic background at all. And as far as her style was concerned, all of her sculptures were very traditional, almost old-fashioned for her time (see Lewis’ neoclassicism for more on why these sculptures with their ethnic and racial themes look so indistinguishable from art made by white artists, and do not represent women of color as “looking different” from the idealized white women of 19th-century American sculpture).

Lewis’ most productive period in terms of her art were clearly the late 1860s and the 1870s; most of the work by her that has survived is from these roughly 15 years. While she was honored by the Italian art organizations for some of her sculptures and found a few important (and wealthy) British patrons, the American art market was clearly her main territory. Not only did tourists buy and also occasionally commission work when they visited her studio in Rome; she also delivered and completed commissioned work on her regular trips to the US, in addition to exhibiting and selling work she created without commission. Making sculptures without commissions was considered risky, especially since making the most popular and respected sculptures, made out of marble (and ideally at least life-size) were a costly undertaking. The marble was expensive; some of the work of cutting and shaping it was typically done by hired artisans, and crating, shipping, and exhibiting it was also a big financial burden. And yet, Edmonia Lewis made many such sculptures, and trips to show and sell them, almost annually between 1869 and 1879: There were trips to Boston in 1869, Chicago in 1870 and again in 1878, New York City in 1872, and also again on the way to and from San Francisco in 1873, St. Paul, MN, in 1874, Philadelphia for the famous Centennial Exhibition in 1876, and a number of cities on the East Coast and in the midwest in 1879. While Lewis’s frequent travel was a sign of artistic independence and considerable confidence in the marketability of her art, especially for a female artist, she also may not have had a choice, if not enough commissions came her way–and since none of her financial records survive, we do not know how many of these trips may have involved financial losses.

The exhibitions and publicly advertised sales of her work declined significantly in the 1880s. Based on extant passenger records that Albert Henderson has patiently combed through, it seems that she took only a handful of additional trips to the US after 1880, and there are only a small number of sculptures she is known to have produced after 1879. She was still actively making art in Rome in 1887, when Frederick Douglass visited and found her plying “her fingers in her art as a sculptress,” “cheerful and happy and successful.” But by the early 1890s, she had left Rome for Paris, where she made her one and only bronze sculpture, a bust of Phillis Wheatley in 1893, for the famous World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In 1896, when her brother Samuel died in Montana and left her some money, she was still living in Paris, but by 1901, she had settled in England for unknown reasons, and was gradually forgotten.

It actually took a long time to unearth where she had gone (apparently, to northwest London) and when she died. The interest in her did not revive until the 1980s, and it was not until 2010 that on-line databases finally revealed that she died of Bright’s disease in the Hammersmith Infirmary on September 17, 1907, and was buried in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery at Kensal Green. (The first name she rarely used, Mary, may suggest that she might have been a Catholic from birth, but she was baptized as an adult in Rome in 1868, and apparently maintained life-long ties with the Catholic church after that point.) As far as we know, she had been single all her life (there was a one-line engagement announcement in the Boston Globe on March 1873, but no marriage notice or record followed) and her will mentions no family and no children; her estate was willed to a local parish priest. She may have been a life-long celibate; she may have had a female or male partner–but we will likely never know.

Much of Edmonia Lewis’ life remains a closed book to us, lost because there was no one to preserve her personal records. Even though compared with the vast majority of African-Americans, she was well-known, even internationally famous for a couple of decades, beyond a handful of letters, public documents, and carte de visite photos, there is nothing left except the newspaper coverage. There is no archive of work related to her, and no complete, detailed catalogue of her sculptures. But those sculptures are what remains of her, scattered across museums, collections, and public spaces from Boston to San Jose, CA., dreamed up in her head and made by her hands. They remind us that 150 years ago, among the overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male artists of her day, there was this amazing woman of Black and Indigenous ancetry, who went against all precedent and defied racism and sexism, in insisting on making art, making us see her sculptures, and behind those sculptures, her. We almost forgot to keep looking, but I am glad that we–I–have begun to do so again.

Your Turn:

If an essay is too long for your taste, the Wikipedia entry on Lewis will give you a nice overview, and Albert Henderson’s website on Edmonia Lewis has a useful chronology. And if you want more detail, the biography by Harry and Albert Henderson (an affordable e-book) will give you that, as do the articles by Marilyn Richardson, who has researched Lewis’ life for many decades. Kirsten Buick integrates many elements of Lewis’ biography into the definitive study of her most important sculptures. All of these are listed on the Resource page.

As I began to research her, I had so many questions about all the things we can’t ever know about Edmonia Lewis. I’m curious what kinds of questions this short biography generated for you. What would you have liked to hear more about? What kinds of documents do you wish we had access to? Have you had an opportunity to discover archival material about someone–a family member, an artist or writer you were researching? What difference does it make when we have that access–which, needless to say, is often difficult when it comes to African-Americans and Native Americans who lived in the 19th century?

And if you care to comment on the format: I deliberately did not make this a “photo essay”–since all photos we have of her and modern photos of her work are used and discussed elsewhere. Does that make sense to you?