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Edmonia Lewis Portrait

Edmonia Lewis

Also Known as: Wildfire, Mary Edmonia Lewis

Greenbush, New York 1844

London, England 1907

Active in:

  • Boston, Massachusetts
  • Oberlin, Ohio
  • Rome, Italy

Photo Caption:
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution


Edmonia Lewis, an American sculptor who made her career in Italy, brought a new, naturalistic approach to the neoclassical tradition. Her works were infused with both personal relevance and timely human rights issues. At the height of her fame in the late 1860s and 1870s, she captivated both Europeans and Americans. Her sculptures were exhibited from Boston to Chicago to San Francisco as well as in her studio in Rome. Truly, the phrase "lost and found" applies equally to the history of Edmonia Lewis and of her masterpiece, The Death of Cleopatra, [SAAM, 1994.17] carved in 1876.

While it is abundantly clear that Lewis overcame enormous obstacles to become a sculptor, much about her life remains unknown. According to various sources, she was born in either 1843 or 1845, possibly in Newark, New Jersey, or rural New York. Her father was African American and her mother was of Ojibwa (Chippewa) descent, though both parents died within a few years of her birth. She may have been raised for a while by her mother's tribe, but her older brother paid for her education at Oberlin College in Ohio, where she excelled in a drawing course.

Lewis went to Boston in 1863 with letters of introduction in hand. A number of prominent abolitionists facilitated her efforts to become a sculptor. Through the sale of portraits of John Brown and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, she financed a trip to Italy in 1865.

In Rome, Lewis experienced greater artistic freedom as a woman and a black. Although she associated with several well-known American sculptors, including Hiram Powers and William Wetmore Story, Lewis forged closer ties with other women artists who lived there at the time, such as Harriet Hosmer and Anne Whitney.

She became internationally known for her portraits of abolitionists and for her depictions of ethnic and religious themes. Although she returned frequently to America to show and sell her works, Lewis became a permanent expatriate by 1880. By the turn of the century, however, she was virtually forgotten. Lewis was last reported living in Rome in 1911, but where and when she died is unknown. Not until the late 1960s was interest in the artist and her work rekindled.

George Gurney Cleopatra: Lost & Found online exhibition (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art) at

Additional Biographies

Luce Artist Biography

Edmonia Lewis was the first sculptor of African American and Native American descent to achieve international recognition. Her father was black, and her mother was Chippewa (Ojibwa) Indian. Orphaned at an early age, Lewis grew up in her mothers tribe where her life revolved around fishing, swimming, and making and selling crafts. In 1859 she attended Oberlin College in Ohio, one of the first schools to accept female and black students. She developed an interest in the fine arts, but an accusation of poisoning, probably racially motivated, forced Lewis to leave the school before graduating. She traveled to Boston and established herself as a professional artist, studying with a local sculptor and creating portraits of famous antislavery heroes. Moving to Rome in 1865, she became involved with a group of American women sculptors and began to work in marble. Sculptors usually hired local workmen to carve their final pieces, but Lewis did all her own stonework out of fear that if she didn't, her work would not be accepted as original. In addition to creating portrait heads, Lewis sculpted biblical scenes and figural works dealing with her Native American heritage and the oppression of black people.