Edmonia Lewis: Why Google celebrates her today

She was the first female African American sculptor to achieve international acclaim at a time when slavery was legal.

Edmonia Lewis [Courtesy America Meredith/News Media Use Only]
Edmonia Lewis [Courtesy America Meredith/News Media Use Only]

Mary Edmonia Lewis was a trailblazer who shattered racial barriers as the first professional African American sculptor in the mid-1800s, becoming famous for her 1,408kg marble sculpture, The Death of Cleopatra.

In honouring Lewis on Wednesday, Google paid tribute to her artistic legacy and her effort to forge a path “for women and artists of colour”.

“Today, we celebrate her and what she stands for – self-expression through art, even in the face of [adversity],” the Google citation reads.

National Freedom Day

February 1 is also observed in the US as National Freedom Day. On this day in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln submitted the 13th amendment – which called for abolition of slavery – to the state legislatures.

Born around July 1844, in New York, her father was of African Haitian origin and her mother of African American and Native American descent.

Lewis and her older half-brother, Samuel, were orphaned at a young age and raised by their maternal aunts, who lived near Niagara Falls, in northern New York state.

According to a Montana newspaper, Samuel started working as a barber at age 12, allowing him to support his sister. He would later become a respected barbershop entrepreneur in Bozeman, Montana.

At the age of 15, Lewis enrolled at Oberlin College, a private liberal arts school in the US state of Ohio. The year was 1859, and Oberlin was one of the very few institutions to admit women and people of colour at a time when slavery was still legal. It was at Oberlin where she began her arts studies. 

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In 1862, she was accused of poisoning two classmates. Lewis was subsequently badly beaten by anti-abolitionist vigilantes and arrested. She was later acquitted, but the incident prevented her from completing her degree.

Shortly after, she left Ohio and headed east, arriving in Boston in 1864 to pursue a career as a sculptor.

Working in a field that was at the time dominated by white men, she was repeatedly rejected by instructors, until she met Edward A Brackett, a sculptor whose clients included some well-known advocates for the abolition of slavery.

Lewis earned her name in Boston with her many works paying homage to abolitionists and heroes of the Civil War. Abolitionist publications also noticed her work, featuring her in magazines and newspapers.

Her local success and popularity in Boston made possible her decision to move to Rome, and it was in the Italian capital that she became a highly respected artist. There, she focused on naturalism and themes relating to African American and Native American issues, achieving both financial and critical acclaim.

But it was her Cleopatra sculpture for which she became most well-known. It was featured at the 1876 Centennial Expo in the US city of Philadelphia and is now part of the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

“The Death of Cleopatra”, Edmonia Lewis [Public Domain]

Black History Month

She was also commissioned in 1877 to work on a portrait of US President Ulysses S Grant.

Among her other works is the 1867 Forever Free marble sculpture commemorating the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Ratified by sufficient state legislatures in December of that year, the amendment abolished slavery in the United States.

The National Freedom Day is the forerunner of Black History Month (BHM), which was conceived by a Harvard-trained historian in 1925.

In 1976, President Gerald R Ford urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honour the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history”. Since then, every American president has officially proclaimed February as BHM.

Despite achieving phenomenal success, she remained rooted to her Native culture.

“There is nothing so beautiful as the free forest. To catch a fish when you are hungry, cut the boughs of a tree, make a fire to roast it, and eat it in the open air, is the greatest of all luxuries. I would not stay a week pent up in cities, if it were not for my passion for art,” Edmonia Lewis, quoted in “Letter From L Maria Child,” National Anti-Slavery Standard, February 27, 1864.

In 1867, Lewis sculpted Forever Free commemorating the abolition of slavery [Public Domain]
In 1867, Lewis sculpted Forever Free commemorating the abolition of slavery [Public Domain]
Source: Al Jazeera