“I have a strong sympathy for all women who have struggled and suffered.”
Mary Edmonia Lewis—even against the backdrop of the American civil war—became a highly acclaimed sculptor, successful despite the difficulties her gender and color presented to a conservative America. Faced with physical abuse and racial prejudice, she persisted, becoming one of the most important artists of the nineteenth century.
Born in 1844 in Greenbush, New York, and orphaned by the age of five, Lewis studied art at Ohio’s Oberlin College, one of the first to accept women and mixed ethnicities. Regardless, she and other women were given a different curriculum and exposed to daily discrimination. Before she was able to graduate, Lewis left Oberlin following unsubstantiated accusations of poisoning and theft.
In 1864, she moved to Boston and, working under the direction of Edward Augustus Brackett, began her career as a sculptor, enjoying her first solo exhibition the same year. Two years later, she moved to Rome—then the epicenter for classical sculpture—joining a circle of expatriate women artists working in the city.
In Rome, Lewis enjoyed a social, spiritual, and artistic freedom that was impossible for a woman—let alone a black woman—in America at that time. The enormous difficulties she overcame to achieve her great success cannot be underestimated.
“Sometimes the times were dark and the outlook was lonesome, but where there is a will, there is a way. I pitched in and dug at my work until now I am where I am. It was hard work though, but with color and sex against me, I have achieved success.”
Inspired and influenced by her surroundings, Lewis sculpted in marble, working in a neoclassical style, often focusing on themes relating to black and indigenous people. Although unhappy about her homeland—telling The New York Times in 1878, that the “land of liberty had no room for a colored sculptor”—her roots and heritage pervaded her work.
By the 1870s, Lewis’s career was thriving and her work selling well. She was commissioned to sculpt marble busts of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, and for the Centennial International Exposition of 1876 she created the monumental The Death of Cleopatra, described at the time as “the most remarkable piece of sculpture in the American section.” The work is now in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Mary Edmonia Lewis, who died in London in 1907, was the first African American sculptor to gain international success. Today, her work enjoys continued acclaim and continues to influence artists and art lovers alike.