Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
A free Black person, Mary Edmonia Lewis was born in Greenbush, New York to a Black father and a Chippewa mother who named her "Wildfire." Orphaned at the age of nine she lived with her mothers relatives but little facts of her early life are known. It is believed that an older brother who got her at age 15 into Oberlin College in Ohio, a major abolitionist center at the time. She overcame a number of extreme difficulties while there but an interest in art surfaced and eventually resulted in Lewis making her way to Boston, Massachusetts.
In Boston, Lewis developed an interest in sculpture and found support for her sculpting amongst members of the Black and abolitionist community. She established her reputation as a sculptor despite racial pejudice and the commonly held belief that women were not as artistically creative as men nor physically capable of the arduous process of carving stone. At the time, American art schools either refused to admit women or made it difficult by charging them more in tuition than men. For the mixed-race, mannish Lewis, it meant she had to learn on her own or from the few willing to show her sculpting technique. While some of her sculpting followed religious and classical themes, at the end of the American Civil War Lewis created a bust of Col. Robert Gould Shaw, a young white Boston Brahmin who was killed in the 1863 assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina while leading the Union Army's all-black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.
By the 1870s Edmonia Lewis had built enough of a reputation that her income from commissioned works allowed her to travel to Rome, Italy, then a home to a number of expatriate American artists. She lived there as part of a circle of creative women that included sculptor Harriet Hosmer , and actress Charlotte Cushman. While in Rome, Lewis created the "Death of Cleopatra" for America's 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Although her work earned contemporary praise, after being exhibited in Chicago the more than 3,000 pound sculpture was basically forgotten until 1996 when interest in her achievements was revived and the massive piece was restored and put on display by the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C..
Nothing is known of Lewis' final years and her death has been calcuated to have occurred sometime around 1911. In 1996, the PBS television network featured Lewis in a "News Hour" piece hosted by Charlayne Hunter-Gault. Her story was also told by author Rinna Evelyn Wolfe in a 1998 biography titled .
- Forever Free (1867)
- Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (1867)
- Minnehaha (1868)
- The Marriage of Hiawatha (1871)
- Henry Wordsworth Longfellow (1871)
- The Old Indian Arrowmaker and His Daughter (1872)
- Hagar in the Wilderness (1875)
- Death of Cleopatra (1876)
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