Businesswoman Crush -
Mary Edmonia Lewis

She may have lived before my time, but she is still an inspiration for me, for women, and especially women of color! She did not let adversity or obstacles stop of her from pursuing her craft or breaking barriers of her time!

Mary Edmonia Lewis lived from July 4, 1844 to September 17, 1907, and was an American sculptor who worked for most of her career in Rome. She is 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 and American Indian people into Neoclassical style sculpture. By the end of the 19th century, she was the only black woman who had participated in and been recognized to any degree by the American artistic mainstream.

Edmonia Lewis' birth date has been listed as July 4, 1844. She was born in Greenbush, New York, which is now the city of Rensselaer. Her father was an Afro-Haitian, while her mother was of Mississauga Ojibwe and African-American descent. Lewis's mother was known as an excellent weaver and craftswoman, while her father was a gentleman's servant. Her family background inspired Lewis in her later work.

By the time Lewis reached the age of nine both of her parents had died. Her mother's two sisters then adopted both Lewis and her older brother Samuel, who was born in 1832. The children remained with their aunts near Niagara Falls for about the next four years. Lewis and her aunts sold Ojibwe baskets and other souvenirs, such as moccasins and blouses, to tourists visiting Niagara Falls, Toronto, and Buffalo. During this time, Lewis went by her Native American name, Wildfire, while her brother was called Sunshine.

In 1859, with help from her brother Samuel and abolitionists, Lewis was sent to Oberlin College at the age of about fifteen, where she changed her name to Mary Edmonia Lewis. At the time, Oberlin College was one of the first higher learning institutions in the United States to admit women and people of differing ethnicities. Lewis's decision to attend Oberlin was one that would significantly change her life, as that is where she began her art studies.

After college, Lewis moved to Boston in early 1864, where she began to pursue her career as a sculptor. The Keeps wrote a letter of introduction on Lewis' behalf to William Lloyd Garrison in Boston, and he was able to introduce her to already established sculptors in the area, as well as writers who then publicized Lewis in the abolitionist press. Finding an instructor, however, was not easy for Lewis. Three male sculptors refused to instruct her before she was introduced to the moderately successful sculptor Edward A. Brackett who specialized in marble portrait busts. To instruct her, he lent her fragments of sculptures to copy in clay, which he then critiqued. Under his tutelage, she crafted her own sculpting tools and sold her first piece, a sculpture of a woman’s hand, for $8. She opened her studio to the public in her first solo exhibition in 1864.

Her success and popularity of her works in Boston allowed Lewis to bear the cost of a trip to Rome in 1866. On her 1865 passport is written, "M. Edmonia Lewis is a Black girl sent by subscription to Italy having displayed great talents as a sculptor". The established sculptor Hiram Powers gave her space to work in his studio. She entered a circle of expatriate artists and established her own space within the former studio of 18th-century Italian sculptor Antonio Canova. She received professional support from both Charlotte Cushman, a Boston actress and a pivotal figure for expatriate sculptors in Rome, and Maria Weston Chapman, a dedicated worker for anti slavery.

Rome was where Lewis spent most of her adult career. She began sculpting in marble, working within the neoclassical manner, but focusing on naturalism within themes and images relating to black and American Indian people. The surroundings of the classical world greatly inspired her and influenced her work. She recreated the classical art style in her own work. For instance, she presented people in her sculptures as draped in robes rather than in contemporary clothing.

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. Of the piece, J. S. Ingraham wrote that Cleopatra was “the most remarkable piece of sculpture in the American section” of the Exposition.

“I have a strong sympathy for all women who have struggled and suffered.”
—Edmonia Lewis

Read more about Lewis at the links below.

Wikipedia - Edmonia Lewis
Biography - Edmonia Lewis


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