Edmonia Lewis: sculptor and equality advocate

Edmonia Lewis, circa 1870
Edmonia Lewis

“There is nothing so beautiful as the free forest. To catch a fish when you are hungry, cut the boughs of a tree, make a fire to roast it, and eat it in the open air, is the greatest of all luxuries. I would not stay a week pent up in cities, if it were not for my passion for art.” – Edmonia Lewis

Most people didn’t know her age; she kept those details a mystery. But no one questioned her remarkable talent. For as a sculptor, Edmonia Lewis was one of the best. People traveled from all over the world to see her art and watch her at work. 

Edmonia was born in New York sometime around 1844. Like her age, details of her upbringing and parents are sparse. Edmonia’s mother was of mixed African and Native American descent and was known for her weaving and craftsmanship. Her father was of African American descent and was known for being a writer.  

Both of her parents passed away by the time Edmonia was nine years old. Afterward, aunts raised her and her older half-brother. But while family life came with much tragedy, Edmonia experienced some financial fortune through her half-brother. He ventured to California during the Gold Rush, where he struck gold and became wealthy. 

Her half-brother used part of his wealth to fund Edmonia’s education. He paid for her to attend Oberlin Academy Preparatory School and then Oberlin Collegiate Institute (now Oberlin College). But she experienced much turmoil in college. She was accused of poisoning two classmates, and while the charges would be dismissed, Edmonia was beaten nearly to death by locals. About a year later, Edmonia was accused of stealing from the college – a charge ultimately dismissed. And then came another accusation, aiding and abetting a burglary. With that, Edmonia decided to leave college without graduating. 

Edmonia moved to Boston, where she began working in sculpting. While her talents came with some recognition, opportunities were sparse. In her words, “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. The land of liberty had no room for a colored sculptor.”

Edmonia settled in Rome and opened a studio. She worked, and with time her art, which often portrayed Native American and African American themes, became well-renowned. Of all her pieces, “Forever Free,” a sculpture of an African American woman and a man with broken chains, arguably became her most famous piece. And as her work became prominent, Edmonia herself found much fanfare. People, including numerous celebrities, visited her studio from all over the world.

Edmonia cared deeply for art. She dedicated much of her adult life to work, never marrying or having children. She passed away in London in 1907.

“Edmonia Lewis: sculptor and equality advocate” sources: Photograph of Edmonia taken circa 1870 by Henry Rocher – National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution / Wikimedia Commons / “Edmonia Lewis.” Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wisconsin). May 12, 1871. p. 1 – via newspapers.com. / Wikipedia

Note: please click here to read a snapshot biography of another sculptor, Selma Burke.

To cite: “Edmonia Lewis: sculptor and equality advocate”. Historical Snapshots.