Edmonia Lewis


Edmonia Lewis: detail from Wildfire by America Meredith
Edmonia Lewis: detail from Wildfire by America Meredith. Courtesy America Meredith and the Smithsonian Institution

Edmonia Lewis Facts

Known for: Edmonia Lewis was a neoclassical African American and Native American sculptor, friend of abolitionists, and sculptor. 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.
Occupation: sculptor
Dates: born July 14 or July 4, 1843 or 1845; died September 17, 1907
Also known as: Wildfire, Mary Edmonia Lewis (she rarely used her first name)

Also see: Edmonia Lewis Image Gallery

Edmonia Lewis Biography

Edmonia Lewis was one of two children born to a Native American mother and an African Haitian father, a "gentlemen's servant." Her birthdate and birthplace (New York? Ohio?) are in doubt. She 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 in northern New York state.


Sunrise, with wealth from the California Gold Rush, financed first a prep school education for Edmonia Lewis, and then an education at Oberlin College, beginning in 1859.

There, in 1862, two white girls accused her of attempting to poison them. She was acquitted, but still subject to verbal attacks and a beating by vigilantes. Oberlin's administration refused to allow her to enroll the next year to complete her graduation requirements.

New York

Edmonia Lewis went to New York to study with sculptor Edward Brackett, introduced by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.

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.


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 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
  • 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.

Later Life and Death

Edmonia Lewis converted to Roman Catholicism in Rome in 1868.

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, 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.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Edmonia Lewis." ThoughtCo, Feb. 1, 2017, thoughtco.com/edmonia-lewis-biography-3528795. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2017, February 1). Edmonia Lewis. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/edmonia-lewis-biography-3528795 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Edmonia Lewis." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/edmonia-lewis-biography-3528795 (accessed November 25, 2017).