Edmonia Lewis


Edmonia was born in Greenbush and even though she left the Albany area, moving to an area outside Buffalo  at a young age, when she was orphaned, she maintained close ties to the City.

In 1875 there was a large reception/testimonial for William H. Johnson, the most prominent Albany Afro- American abolitionist and diligent worker for the rights of Afro-Americans after the Civil War.

The gathering was held at the AME Church on Hamilton St. (still there today, just below Lark). During the reception, Mr. Johnson was presented with a bust of Senator Charles Sumner by Ms. Lewis. (Sumner had been a leading proponent of rights for the freed Afrro-Americans in the post Civil War era during Reconstruction.)

Mr. Johnson was so very pleased with the bust and admiring of the skill and talent of the Ms. Lewis, the bust was exhibited at the Atlanta World’s Fair in 1895. He subsequently donated it to the Frederick Douglass Hospital in Philadelphia, shortly after it opened in 1897.

Here’s  more about Lewis from a February 1, 2017 Smithsonian.com article by Brigit Katz:

After being orphaned, Lewis lived with a tribe of  Chippewas (Ojibwa), her mother’s family. When Lewis was just 15 years old, she enrolled in Oberlin College, a private liberal arts school in Ohio. Slavery would still be legal in the United States for another six years when Lewis started Oberlin, and Al Jazeera reports that at the time, the college was one of few institutions that would enroll African American students.

But Lewis’ education came to an abrupt and violent end in 1863 when she was accused of poisoning two of her white roommates. Lewis was forced to stand trial, and though she was ultimately acquitted, she was attacked by a mob of white vigilantes, and ultimately left Oberlin before graduating, “in part, due to harassment,” the Edmonia Lewis Center for Women and Transgender People at Oberlin writes, as Talia Lavin noted in The Toast.

Robert Gould Shaw

Undefeated by this devastating incident, Lewis moved to Boston and went on to secure an apprenticeship with Edward A. Brackett, a well-connected Boston sculptor. There, Hill writes, Lewis crafted sculptures of well-known abolitionists, like Charles Sumner, Wendell Phillips and Robert Gould Shaw, who lead the 54th Massachusetts, the Afro-American regiment memorialized in the movie Glory. These works proved quite popular, and Lewis was able to use the profits from her sales to travel to Europe. She visited London, Paris, and Florence, before ultimately settling in Rome.

tumblr_inline_mxvjknosRH1rdmtifIn Italy, Lewis fell in with a group of American women sculptors, who were drawn to the country’s abundance of fine, white marble. Lewis’ sculptures stood out from that of her contemporaries, in part because her work often nodded to Native American and African American culture.  The Old Arrow Maker, for example, shows a Dakota woman plaiting a mat, while her father carves an arrowhead from jasper. The sculpture references a scene from “The Song of Hiawatha,” a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Lewis’ life across the Atlantic has obscured many details from her autobiography, but Lavin notes that she was buried in London in 1907. Though the majority of her work did not survive to the present-day, much of what remains can be found at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

http-americanartsiedu-images-1994-199417_1ajpgOne of Lewis’ most famous sculptures ), The Death of Cleopatra, is among the sculptures on display there. Rediscovered in the 1970s after it went missing for almost a century, the work depicts the Egyptian queen draped over her throne, moments after her death. When the sculpture was first featured at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, some critics were shocked by its realism. Others, Google’s Arts & Culture Institute reports, regarded it as the most impressive American sculpture at the exhibition