(c. 1840–after 1909).
Sculptor. Of African-American and American Indian ancestry, she ranks as the first important American sculptor of color. Her work tempered neoclassicism with realistic observation. Nearly all her ideal creations interpret themes relating to her racial heritage or her experience as a woman, while many portraits picture leaders in the struggle for Emancipation. She lived in Rome throughout her professional life, although she visited the United States on a number of occasions. Mary Edmonia Lewis was born to a black West Indian father and a Chippewa (Ojibwa) mother (probably half African American), most likely near Albany, New York. The family resided in Newark, New Jersey, at the time she was orphaned in 1847. Subsequently, she may have lived for a time with her mother's people in western New York. She attended Oberlin (Ohio) College but did not complete a degree. In 1863 she left for Boston, epicenter of abolitionism. There she received some instruction in sculpture from Edward Brackett and Anne Whitney, but as an artist she was mostly self-taught. In 1865 she departed for Europe. In Florence, Hiram Powers and Thomas Ball offered assistance and encouragement before she arrived in Rome the following year. Soon she completed her best-known work, Forever Free (Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1867), celebrating the 1863 abolition of slavery. His chains broken, a black man raises one arm in exultation as he offers with the other protection to the woman who crouches prayerfully beside him. One of her finest pieces, Hagar (Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1875; modeled 1868–69), tenderly evokes the lonely suffering of biblical exile, a symbol of alienation and abused womanhood. Shown to great acclaim at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, Lewis's last major work, The Death of Cleopatra (Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1876; modeled 1872–73), interprets the expiring Egyptian queen with nobility and restrained pathos. By this time neoclassical marbles were quickly going out of fashion, and records of her later life are few. Last documented in Rome in 1909, she presumably died there.
Subjects: Art — United States History.