Date Of Birth:
26 July 1844
Date Of Death:
17 September 1907
Place Of Birth:
Best Known As:
The woman sculptor who did 1876's 'The Death of Cleopatra'
Edmonia Lewis was an American sculptor of the late 19th century who gained international fame at a time when women artists were a rarity -- let alone a woman sculptor whose ancestry was African and Native American. Born in New York to a father from the West Indies and a mother who was mostly Ojibwe, she was orphaned as a girl and little is known about her childhood. Her brother and patrons who were abolitionists arranged for Lewis to attend Oberlin College in Ohio, where she studied art. While at Oberlin, Lewis was accused of poisoning two classmates, and of and stealing some art supplies; although there was no proof of guilt in either case, she was not allowed to finish her final term at Oberlin. With help from more abolitionists, she made it to Boston in 1864, where her professional career began. Within a couple of years, Lewis had earned enough to move to Rome, where she encountered fewer barriers because of her race. Lewis sculpted in the classical Western tradition and did many busts of writers, poets and abolitionists, as well as several characters from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's popular poem The Song of Hiawatha (as well as Longfellow himself). Her most famous piece is a two and a half ton statue of The Death of Cleopatra, which caused a sensation at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. The statue ended up having a mysterious story of its own, ending up for decades at a racetrack and then forgotten in storage for years. The end of Lewis's life is just as mysterious as the beginning, and until 2017 it was thought that she had died and was buried in Rome, but nobody knew when or where. As it turns out, she was living in England when she died in 1907, and her grave is in London. In 2022 the United States Postal Service issued a stamp in Lewis's honor.
Edmonia Lewis went by the name Mary Edmonia Lewis for a time, but dropped the Mary around the time she was at Oberlin College… She also said she was called “Wildfire” and that she’d been raised in part by her mother’s extended family… In the case of her going to trial for poisoning, the story is that she and two classmates were going out socially, but the other two girls got sick (not fatally) and Edmonia did not. Whether Edmonia was cleared because there was no evidence or because she had a good attorney is anyone’s guess.
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