Edmonia Lewis: A Trailblazer

04/07/98 CREDIT: Dudley M. Brooks Montgomery. Alabama Women and family members of women who were involved in the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott before or along with Rosa Parks. Before Rosa Parks repeated the act, Claudette Colvin was arrested for not giving up her seat to a white person in Montgomery, Alabama when she was 15 years old. (Photo by Dudley M. Brooks/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

In the early 19th century it was rare for women to receive praise and recognition for anything, but for an African- American and Native American woman it was practically unheard of. Edmonia Lewis defied each stereotype and setback being the first professional African-Native American woman sculptor to be recognized on an international level. Lewis was the epitome of black excellence in the 19th century and continues to empower females today with her story, proving that they too can beat the odds.

With busts sculptures drawing attention to the upper portion of the human body, and full body sculptures that weigh two tons, Lewis has a vast collection of pieces that include themes of religion and classical art. She was born in Greenbush, New York in 1844 to her African American father and Native American (of the Ojibwa tribe) mother and died in 1904. As a young woman Lewis was always crafty and she had the support of her encouraging older brother. She attended Oberlin College in Ohio where she was able to hone her talents. This journey was short lived when the young sculptor was accused of poisoning two white students on campus with cantharides (commonly known as the Spanish fly) in 1859. Biography.com stated that she was taken and beaten by a mob of students but later recovered and escaped to Boston.

While in Boston the brave sculptor met with Edward A. Brackett another sculptor who encouraged her to get a studio and really dive into her craft. With this push Lewis began creating magnificent sculptures and began to earn her place amongst the other artist in Boston. As she gained recognition in Boston people started to notice certain themes in her art as many of them paid homage to the abolitionist movement which was very big on the Oberlin campus. One of her most famous abolition sculptures was a bust of Colonel Robert Shaw a prominent abolitionist. From the sales of this masterpiece to local Bostonians she paid for a one-way ticket to Rome with hopes of furthering her career.

For Lewis, Rome was the Holy Grail for sculptors, while there she gained international recognition in a field that was dominated by white males.In Rome she found a new inspiration and began sculpting pieces that were influenced by her culture and religion, Catholicism. Many of these pieces were completed without any assistance according to americanart.si.edu, which is very impressive since some of her works were very large. During her time in Rome she received the most praise for her “Death of Cleopatra” sculpture. She depicts Cleopatra, the infamous queen of Egypt, after her dramatic suicide which set her apart from other artists at the time who created their own versions of Cleopatra contemplating death. This sculpture is on display currently at the Smithsonian American Arts Museum.

Although little is known about the beginnings and ends of Edmonia Lewis’s life and many of her sculptures are unaccounted for, we do know one thing; Lewis is a trailblazer. Despite all the curves thrown at her she carved her own path and made her own way. The sculptor faced controversy at a time (and sometimes even now) when African American women had to try twice as hard to receive recognition. Lewis created sensational pieces that spoke to her life through her culture and religion. “A rare instrument for social change in the aftermath of the Civil War” is how she is described on edmoiniallewis.com. She demanded change and would not settle for anything less than that. Lewis paved the way for young women who too are trying to change the way their field looks.

-Caryl Williams