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EDMONIA LEWIS

Sculptor (1845-1890)

Riding the crest of the neoclassical revival in the 1870s, sculptress Edmonia Lewis attracted wide notice in a field generally dominated by men.  She was, in fact, the first African American sculptor to achieve international distinction.  Born in 1845, in Greenhigh, Ohio, Edmonia's father was an African American servant and her mother a Chippewa Indian.  Her childhood was nomadic one as she was raised mostly by her mother's tribe.  Around 1860, Edmonia traveled to Boston in hopes of a musical career.  She became interested in sculpting. 

The neoclassical sculptor Edward Brackett became her mentor, and she soon created a well-received medallion portraying the abolitionist martyr, John Brown.  Lewis' first exhibition in 1864 featured a bust of Col. Robert Shaw, leader of a Negro regiment, of which a hundred copies were eventually sold.  In 1867, Miss Lewis set off for Rome where she found true fame for her work.  Rome, at this time, was a Mecca for American sculptors, many of them women.  The Greek revival was reaching its height and Lewis' work began to sell for large sums.  By 1873, she had won two $50,000 commissions.  Her studio became a fashionable place for tourists. 

Revised: July 18, 2013.