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Biography of Sculptor Edmonia Lewis

First American Sculptor of Mixed Ancestry
Chaitra Suraj Saxena
Edmonia Lewis was the first American sculptor of mixed ancestry to receive national and global recognition with her original and imaginative sculptures.
Born free in the abolitionist era to Catherine Mike Lewis, an impressive craftsperson and weaver who herself had mixed race origins of Mississauga Ojibwe and African-American line; and an Afro-Haitian father in Albany area of New York.
Details about Edmonia’s date of birth and first few years of life are disputed. However, historians put her birth year at 1844.
Her native name was Wildflower and though she lost parents at a young age, her older half-brother cared for her. She studied at New York Central College, McGrawville where records show her academic performance and individual conduct were excellent.
Edmonia’s time at Central College proved crucial, for she met inspirational people and activists of the slavery time, many of whom went on to be her mentors and contributed to her future artistic life.
She then went to Oberlin, Ohio for higher education. However, Edmonia’s time there was far from peaceful. Subjected to racial discrimination, physical assault, and a growing hostile atmosphere in midst of the raging Civil War, she was forced to leave Ohio before graduating.
Edmonia moved to Boston in 1864 to embark on her sculpting career. After quite a struggle, she finally found guidance with Edward Augustus Bracket and learnt to make marble portrait busts. Soon, her sculpting talent began to blossom and she sold her first piece.
Later in 1864, Edmonia held her first exhibition in her studio. Her sculptures’ designs were hugely influenced by abolitionist era heroes and activists.
Her bust for Union Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, an African-American Civil War regiment commander greatly captivated latter’s family which they also bought.
Edmonia started to get due attention and acclaim for her work, and though she appreciated it, she was convinced that her racial identity overshadowed her work and disliked the fake praise.
In 1866, she moved to Rome to get away from the constant ‘color/race’ association, completely focus on her sculpting work, and explore creative and professional possibilities.
With neoclassical sculpting style, committed approach to work- doing all the manual labour to create sculptures from scratch, and a spirited, individual agency, she soon acquired fame and appreciation.
Her sculpture pieces over a period of time like Hiawatha (1867), Forever Free (1868), Hagar (1875), The Death of Cleopatra (1876) impressed galore.
Furthermore, she also participated in the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, a major achievement in her artistic life.
By late 1880s, with the decline of neoclassicism, Edmonia’s popularity also dimmed and she moved to London, where she died on September 17, 1907. She never got married or had kids.
Edmonia Lewis remains an iconic figure in the world of sculptures and through her body of work, an independent voice, and passion for sculpting made a place of her own.