A Biography of Sculptor Edmonia Lewis

Neoclassical Native- and African-American Artist

The Death of Cleopatra
Edmonia Lewis's most famous work, The Death of Cleopatra. Wikimedia Commons 

Edmonia Lewis was a neoclassical African American and Native American sculptor.  She was a friend, and sculptor of, abolitionists. Her sculpture, often with Biblical themes or themes of freedom or of famous Americans including many abolitionists, experienced a revival of interest in the twentieth century. She often depicted African, African American, and Native American peoples in her work. Much of her work is lost.

She is particularly recognized for her naturalism within the neoclassical genre.

Perhaps her best-known sculpture is "The Death of Cleopatra."

Lewis died in obscurity; her death date and place were discovered in 2011.

Early Childhood

Edmonia Lewis was one of two children born to a mother with Native American and African American heritage. Her father, an African Haitian, was a "gentlemen's servant." Her birthdate and birthplace (New York? Ohio?) are in doubt. She may have been born on July 14 or July 4, in either 1843 or 1845. Lewis herself claimed her birthplace was upstate New York. 

Edmonia Lewis spent her early childhood with her mother's people, the Mississauga band of Ojibway (Chippewa Indians). She was known as Wildfire, and her brother as Sunrise. When they were orphaned when Lewis was about 10, two aunts took them in. They lived near Niagara Falls in northern New York state.


Sunrise, with wealth from the California Gold Rush, and then working as a barber in Montana, financed a prep school education for his sister, and then an education at Oberlin College where she studied art, beginning in 1859.

Oberlin was one of very few schools at the time to admit either women or people of color, 

At Oberlin in 1862, two white girls accused her of attempting to poison them. She was acquitted, but was subjected to verbal attacks and a beating by anti-abolitionist vigilantes. Even though Lewis was not convicted in the incident, Oberlin's administration refused to allow her to enroll the next year to complete her graduation requirements.

Early Success in New York

Edmonia Lewis went to Boston and New York to study with sculptor Edward Brackett, introduced by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Abolitionists began to publicize her work.  Her first bust was of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, a white Bostonian who led black troops in the Civil War. She sold copies of the bust, and was able with the proceeds to move to Rome.

Rome Inspires a Move to Marble and Neoclassical Style

In Rome, Lewis joined a large artistic community that included other women sculptors such as Harriet Hosmer, Anne Whitney, and Emma Stebbins. She began to work in marble, and adopted the neoclassical style. Concerned with racist assumptions that she wasn't really responsible for her work, Lewis worked alone and did not become an active part of the artistic community that drew buyers to Rome. Among her patrons in America was Lydia Maria Child, the abolitionist and feminist. She also converted to Roman Catholicism while living in Italy.

Best-Known Sculptures

Lewis had some success, especially among American tourists, especially for her depictions of African, African American, or Native American people. Egyptian themes were, at the time, considered representations of Black Africa.

Her work has been criticized for the Caucasian look of many of her female figures, though their costuming is considered more ethnically accurate. Among her best-known sculptures:

  • Forever Free (1867): a black woman and black man celebrating the Emancipation Proclamation, a scuplture commemorating the ratification of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery
  • Hagar in the Wilderness (1868): the Egyptian handmaiden of Sarah and Abraham, mother of Ishmael
  • The Old Arrow Maker and His Daughter (1872): depicting Native Americans
  • The Death of Cleopatra (1875): depicting the Egyptian queen

Edmonia Lewis created the more realistic "The Death of Cleopatra" for the 1876 Philadelphia Centenniel, and it was also displayed at the 1878 Chicago Exposition. Then it was lost for a century. It turned out to have been displayed on the grave of a race track owner's favorite horse, Cleopatra, while the race track became first a golf course, then a munitions plant.

With another building project, the statue was moved and then rediscovered, and it was restored in 1987. It is now part of the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Later Life and Death

Edmonia Lewis disappeared from public view in the late 1880s. Her last known sculpture was in 1883, and Frederick Douglass met with her in Rome in 1887. A Catholic magazine reported her as alive in 1909 and there was a report of her in Rome in 1911.

For a long time, no definitive death date was known for Edmonia Lewis. In 2011, cultural historian Marilyn Richardson uncovered evidence from British records that she was living in the Hammersmith area of London and died in the Hammersmith Borough Infirmary on September 17, 1907, despite those reports of her in 1909 and 1911.

Selected Quotations

  • "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 not room for a colored sculptor."
  • "I know praise is not good for me. Some praise me because I am a colored girl, and I don’t want that kind of praise. I had rather you would point out my defects, for that will teach me something." 
  • "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."   (Quoted by Lydia Maria Child in a letter in the National Anti-Slavery Standard, February 27, 1864.)
  • "My mother was a wild Indian, and was born in Albany, of copper colour, and with straight, black hair. There she made and sold moccasins. My father, who was a negro, and a gentleman's servant, saw her and married her."

Edmonia Lewis Fast Facts

  • Name: Mary Edmonia Lewis
  • Birth: July 14 or July 4, in either 1843 or 1845
  • Death: London, September 17, 1907
  • Birthplace: Possibly upstate New York. 
  • Known as: Edmonia, Wildfire
  • Education: Oberlin College
  • Lived in: Upstate New York, New York City, Rome, London
  • Known for: Neoclassical African American and Native American sculptor
  • Famous works: Forever Free (1867), Hagar in the Wilderness (1868); The Old Arrow Maker and His Daughter (1872); The Death of Cleopatra (1875).


  • Jeannine Atkins.  Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis. 2017.  Fictionalized biography.
  • Kirsten Pai Buick.  Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History’s Black and Indian Subject.  2009.
  • Harry Henderson, Albert Henderson. The Indomitable Spirit of Edmonia Lewis. A Narrative Biography. 2013.
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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "A Biography of Sculptor Edmonia Lewis." ThoughtCo, Mar. 13, 2018, thoughtco.com/edmonia-lewis-biography-3528795. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2018, March 13). A Biography of Sculptor Edmonia Lewis. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/edmonia-lewis-biography-3528795 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "A Biography of Sculptor Edmonia Lewis." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/edmonia-lewis-biography-3528795 (accessed March 20, 2018).