Eminent Victorians: Edmonia Lewis

Edmonia Lewis, c. 1870

It’s always been tough to make it as an artist. Now imagine trying to make it as a black woman in the Civil War era USA. That’s what Edmonia Lewis did, despite being accused (and later acquitted) of poisoning two friends, and later accused (and again acquitted) of stealing art supplies from her college. Not only did she succeed at her chosen career despite the persecution she faced; she became the first African American woman to achieve international fame as a sculptor.

Born free in 1844, she was of mixed Afro-Haitian, Afro-American, and Mississauga Ojibwe descent and grew up using her native American name, Wildfire. When she moved to Boston after college, several sculptors refused to teach her. She moved in abolitionist circles and achieved early fame with a bust of Union Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. On the proceeds of the copies she made and sold, she was able to move to Rome, where she adopted the neoclassical style, while continuing to choose subjects and themes from Afro-American and Native-American culture. It was in Rome that she became a sensation.

Here are some of my favorite examples of her work:

Going clockwise from the largest image: Hiawatha, 1868; Minnehaha, 1868; Detail from The Death of Cleopatra, 1876.