Edmonia Lewis

Mary Edmonia Lewis was born in Greenbush, New York in 1844 to an African American father and Native American (Chippewa) mother. Orphaned at a young age, Lewis was raised by her mother’s nomadic family and given the name “Wildfire.” Her brother financed her early education in Albany and supported her enrollment at Oberlin College in Ohio, in 1859. Lewis’s education at Oberlin ended abruptly in 1863, after she was brutally assaulted by white vigilantes following her acquittal in a trial in which she was accused of poisoning two of her white roommates. Lewis moved to Boston with encouragement and financial assistance from her brother and received limited formal training from the sculptor Edward Brackett.

In Boston, Lewis began sculpting portraits of well-known abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Sumner, and Wendell Phillips. The sale of her portrait busts of abolitionist John Brown and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the Boston hero and leader of the celebrated all-African American 54th Regiment of the Civil War, helped finance Lewis’ first trip to Europe in 1865. Image: Portrait of American abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859), executed in 1859.

Lewis traveled to London, Paris, and Florence before settling in Rome, where she learned Italian and rented a studio near the Piazza Barberini. Lewis became acquainted with Harriet Hosmer and other American sculptors, many of whom had been drawn to Rome by the availability of fine white marble and skills of Italian stone carvers, who were often hired to transfer a sculptor’s design from a plaster model to finished marble. Lewis was unique among sculptors of her generation in Rome as she rarely employed Italian carvers and completed most of her work without assistance, in part due to her limited financial resources.