Black History: Edmonia Lewis

In art history, there are only a select few that can be described as trailblazers in their medium. One of them was Mary Edmonia Lewis.

Drawing done by Edmonia Lewis during her time at Oberlin College.

Edmonia Lewis, which was the name she went by, was born in 1844 in Upstate New York, and she was born free. She lived with her aunts among the Ojibwa after being orphaned at a young age. She was later admitted to Oberlin College, where she began to excel in art as she developed an interest in drawing. Unfortunately, Lewis was accused of poisoning two of her classmates, as well as theft, and a mob beat her and ran her out of town.

She made her way to Boston after that traumatic incident and was introduced to a local sculptor, which was the beginning of her groundbreaking works of art. Her sculpture style was Neoclassical, a popular art movement in the 18th century and it highlighted symmetry and simplicity. Some of her most famous works include the sculpture titled The Death of Cleopatra and a bust commissioned by U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant for the 1876 Centennial Exposition. Lewis enjoyed highlighting themes of African American and Native American heritage. Her talent helped her rise to stardom in her field, making her the first African American and Native American artist to achieve fame at both a national and international level.

Read more about Edmonia Lewis’ art, as well as other famous black artists, in the books below, available at Warner Library:

African Americans who were first : illustrated with photographs

Free within ourselves : African-American artists in the collection of the National Museum of American Art


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