Skip to main content

Edmonia Lewis, American Sculptor

Mary Edmonia Lewis (1844–1907) was a mid-nineteenth-century sculptor who achieved international acclaim. She often created sculptures exploring racial themes in a style based on classical Greek and Roman art. 

Lewis was born in Greenbush, New York in 1844 to a Caribbean (Haitian) father and an Anishinaabe/Ojibwe mother. Yet Lewis refused to be limited or defined by this identity. As she stated, “Some praise me because I am a colored girl, and I don’t want that kind of praise. I had rather you would point out my defects, for that will teach me something.”

Lewis attended Oberlin College, the first college in the United States to accept women, African Americans, and Native Americans. There, she was given instruction on drawing from experienced artist Georgianna Wyett and saw her first plaster casts of classical sculptures. 

After a series of racist attacks, including being beaten by a white mob for being accused and acquitted of poisoning two white roommates and also being accused of stealing art supplies, Lewis left Oberlin and moved to Boston to begin her career. There, she met renowned sculptor Edward Brackett, with whom she began studying sculpture. She made portraits of well-known abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Sumner, and Wendell Phillips.

Edmonia Lewis. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Her first financial success came in 1864 when she created a portrait bust of Colonel Robert Shaw, a Civil War officer that commanded the 54th Massachusetts infantry composed of African American soldiers. Copies of the bust sold well enough to finance her move to Europe in 1865. The passionate exploration of art and history in London, Paris, and Florence resonated with Lewis, but she eventually settled in Rome, Italy. 

In Rome, Lewis furthered her studies and established a studio. The artistic freedom in Rome offered Lewis, as a woman of color, to develop an impressive classical sculpture practice. “I was practically driven to Rome in order to obtain the opportunities for art culture, and to find a social atmosphere where I was not constantly reminded of my color,” said Lewis. “The land of liberty had not room for a colored sculptor.”

Lewis celebrated her multiracial identity through her choice of subjects. She frequently selected African American and Native American subjects for her sculpture. Between 1866 and 1872, Lewis completed a series of sculptures on popular themes drawn from the 1855 epic poem “Song of Hiawatha” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The poem narrates the fictional adventures of an Ojibwe warrior named Hiawatha and the tragedy of his love for Minnehaha, a Dakota woman. Lewis’s sculpture, The Old Arrow Maker (modeled 1866, carved ca. 1872), depicts an excerpt from “Song of Hiawatha”:

“At the doorway of his wigwam

Sat the ancient Arrow-maker

At his side, in all her beauty,

Sat the lovely Minnehaha”

In the poem, the character of Minnehaha plaits “mats of flags and rushes” while her father makes “arrow-heads of jasper.” Both figures look up, as if greeting Hiawatha, whose presence is implied by the deer he has brought as a token of his courtship. Minnehaha’s father has strong but matured features and a muscular body and he wears a necklace made of bear claws. While Native American subject matter was not absent from Neoclassical subjects, they often depicted a dying race. Lewis’s subjects, derived from Longfellow, were unique and reflected longevity, bonds between generations, tradition, and peaceful toil. In addition, the sculpture implies the bringing together of the Ojibwe and Dakota peoples after years of intertribal war, as the Smithsonian American Art Museum observed, “may refer to Lewis’s hopes for reconciliation between the North and South after the Civil War.” The sculpture was popular, and Lewis made many copies of The Old Arrow Maker.

Lewis’s humanistic approach to art connected with people regardless of their ethnicity and unintentionally turned her into an emblem of the abolitionist movement in America. Although we know little about the facts of her life, her sculptures weave together the layered stories of American identity.

Last week, the US Postal Service unveiled its 45th stamp in the Black Heritage series: a portrait of Edmonia Lewis. Increased attention on Lewis’s life and work in recent years has brought new works to life and placed a renewed appreciation on the artist’s accomplishments, both in the art world and within mid-nineteenth-century America. Stamps can be purchased here.