MARY EDMONIA LEWIS was an American sculptor who worked for most of her career in Rome, Italy. Born free on this date (d: 1907) in New York, she was the first woman of African-American and Native American heritage to achieve international fame and recognition as a sculptor in the fine arts world. Her work is known for incorporating themes relating to black people and indigenous peoples of the Americas into Neoclassical-style sculpture.
In Boston, Lewis befriended abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and sculptor Edward A. Brackett. It was Brackett who taught Lewis sculpture and helped propel her to set up her own studio. By the early 1860s, her clay and plaster medallions of Garrison, John Brown and other abolitionist leaders gave her a small measure of commercial success.
In 1864, Lewis created a bust of Colonel Robert Shaw, a Civil War hero who had died leading the all-black 54th Massachusetts Regiment. This was her most famous work to date and the money she earned from the sale of copies of the bust allowed her to move to Rome, home to a number of expatriate American artists, including several women.
She began to gain prominence in the United States during the American Civil War; at the end of the 19th century, she remained the only black woman who had participated in and been recognized to any degree by the American artistic mainstream. A major coup in her career was participating in the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. For this, she created a monumental 3,015-pound marble sculpture, The Death of Cleopatra, which portrayed the queen in the throes of death. This piece depicts the moment popularized by Shakespeare in Antony and Cleopatra, in which Cleopatra had allowed herself to be bitten by a poisonous asp following the loss of her crown. Of the piece, J. S. Ingraham wrote that Cleopatra was “the most remarkable piece of sculpture in the American section” of the Exposition. Much of the viewing public was shocked by Lewis’s frank portrayal of death, but the statue drew thousands of viewers. Cleopatra was considered a woman of both sensuous beauty and demonic power. Her self-annihilation has been portrayed numerously in art as well as literature and cinema. In Death of Cleopatra, Edmonia Lewis added an innovative flair by portraying the Egyptian queen in a disheveled, inelegant manner, a departure from the Victorian approach of representing death. Considering Lewis’s interest in emancipation imagery as seen in her work Forever Free, it is not surprising that Lewis eliminated Cleopatra’s usual companion figures of loyal slaves from her work. Lewis’s The Death of Cleopatra may have been a response to the culture of the Centennial Exposition, which celebrated one-hundred years of the United States being built around the principles of liberty and freedom, a celebration of unity despite centuries of slavery, the recent Civil War, and the failing attempts and efforts of Reconstruction. In order to avoid any acknowledgement of black empowerment by the Centennial, Lewis’s sculpture could not have directly addressed the subject of Emancipation.After being placed in storage, the statue was moved to the 1878 Chicago Interstate Exposition where it remained unsold.
The sculpture was acquired by a gambler by the name of “Blind John” Condon who purchased it from a saloon on Clark street to mark the grave of a Racehorse named “Cleopatra”. The grave was in front of the grandstand of his Harlem race track in the Chicago suburb of Foresst Park, where the sculpture remained for nearly one hundred years until the land was bought by the U.S. Postal Service and the sculpture was moved to a construction storage yard in Cicero. While at the storage yard, The Death of Cleopatra sustained extensive damage at the hands of well-meaning Boy Scouts who painted and caused other damage to the sculpture. Dr. James Orland, a dentist in Forest Park, and member of the Forest Park Historical Society acquired the sculpture and held it in private storage at the Forest Park Mall.
A testament to Lewis’s renown as an artist came in 1877, when former US President Ulysses S. Grant commissioned her to do his portrait. He sat for her as a model and was pleased with her finished piece. She also contributed a bust of Charles Sumner to the 1895 Atlanta Exposition.
In 2002, the scholar Molefi Kete Asante named Edmonia Lewis on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans
As they say, Edmonia Lewis never married and had no children. She is generally believed to have been a lesbian according to authors Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross in A Black Woman’s Guide to the History of the United States.