The Unlikely Success of Edmonia Lewis, a Black Sculptor in 19th-Century America

Karen Chernick
Feb 1, 2018 8:42PM

Portrait of Edmonia Lewis, c. 1870. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Edmonia Lewis, Old Arrow Maker, 1872. Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Samuel Sewall, a Boston-based abolitionist lawyer, was not expecting a delivery from Rome. So he was understandably shocked to find a three-foot-tall marble sculpture waiting for him at the city’s port one day in 1868. The accompanying $800 bill for the artwork came as a second, less welcome, surprise.

Titled Forever Free (1867), the work had been sent by sculptor Edmonia Lewis and depicted a newly freed African-American couple. It celebrated the recent Emancipation Proclamation that had declared, on January 1, 1863, that “all persons held as slaves within any State… shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”

Lewis, who had begun her career in Boston years earlier by selling sculpted portraits of abolitionists, was hoping Sewall would help her find a buyer for Forever Free. He did; the following year, the work was dedicated to respected pastor and Underground Railroad conductor Reverend Leonard Grimes during a festive ceremony at Boston’s Tremont Temple.

Edmonia Lewis, The Death of Cleopatra, 1876. Photo by Mr.TinDC, via Flickr.


Like her uncommissioned sculpture, Lewis was used to being a surprise arrival on the art scene. As a woman of mixed African and Native American descent who came of age during the Civil War, her odds of making it were slim, at best. Yet she managed to become the world’s first professional African-American sculptor, celebrated internationally for her Neoclassical style. “The obstacles Edmonia Lewis overcame are unparalleled in American art,” wrote Harry Henderson in the 1993 volume A History of African American Artists: From 1792 to the Present (co-authored with artist Romare Bearden).

Orphaned at a young age, Lewis was raised by her mother’s Chippewa sisters in upstate New York. In 1859, supported by her brother, she traveled to Ohio to attend Oberlin College. There, she received drawing instruction from an experienced artist, Georgianna Wyett, and saw her first plaster casts of classical sculptures.

Oberlin, which admitted both female and African-American students, was a major abolitionist center at the time. Yet Lewis still faced discrimination. Falsely accused of poisoning her roommates and stealing art supplies, she was denied the right to enroll for her final semester and was therefore unable to graduate. To continue her studies, Lewis moved to Boston with a letter of introduction that secured her training under self-taught sculptor Edward Brackett. Although he was helpful, Lewis eventually decided it would be best to leave the United States. In the summer of 1865, the young sculptor boarded a ship to join the growing number of American artists working in Italy.

The path to Rome was already well trodden by a group of American women sculptors— deprecatingly dubbed by author Henry James as a “white, marmorean flock”—that included Harriet Goodhue Hosmer, Emma Stebbins, and Margaret Foley. Hosmer was the first to recommend that Lewis study sculpture in Italy and arranged for her to rent a studio that once belonged to prominent Venetian sculptor Antonio Canova.

In that daunting workspace, Lewis chiseled newly freed African-Americans with the timeless marble gravitas of the Neoclassical style. She also sculpted Native Americans, a subject many have attributed to her personal heritage—but which may have signalled a desire to join the American art mainstream, instead. “Representations of Native Americans were very prevalent at the time—both for artists working at home and artists working abroad in Florence and Rome—because they announced themselves as specifically American themes,” explains Thayer Tolles, curator of American paintings and sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Edmonia Lewis, Hiawatha, 1868. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Edmonia Lewis, Minnehaha, 1868. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Lewis spent her life traveling across the Atlantic, emphasizing certain aspects of her identity based on her audience at the time. “During abolitionism, she found reciprocal interests and common ground with anti-slavery advocates,” says Kirsten Pai Buick, a professor of art history at the University of New Mexico and author of Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History’s Black and Indian Subject (2010). After slavery was abolished, Lewis sculpted religious subjects that appealed to Catholic patrons in Italy and England. And the popularity of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha—which tells the story of two star-crossed lovers from different Native American tribes—set the stage for Lewis to share anecdotes of her nomadic Chippewa childhood. (The connection was bolstered by the fact that she and the titular Hiawatha were members of the same tribe.) Lewis sculpted a version of the fictional couple in 1868, a pair of marble figures that are today on display at the Met.

This was typical practice at the time, according to Buick. “[Lewis] did nothing beyond what other artists did,” she says. “She found patronage where there was interest,”

One hundred years after Lewis sent Forever Free to Sewall, it caught the eye of James Porter, the father of African-American art history and an artist himself. Porter ended up acquiring the sculpture for Howard University, where he was both a professor and director of the art gallery. “He really tried to get the university to understand the importance of Negro art,” says Scott Baker, assistant director of the Howard University Gallery of Art. “You have to remember, this was back in 1967, so they didn’t think much of it. So he purchased it with his own money.”

Forever Free has been prominently displayed at the university ever since. As it turns out, both school and sculpture were created in the same year; they celebrated their shared 150th anniversary in 2017. The artwork currently serves as the centerpiece of an ongoing exhibition marking the sesquicentennial—a far cry from its unheralded arrival in Boston, a century and a half before.

Karen Chernick