Mary Edmonia Lewis

The Extraordinary Life of Mary Edmonia Lewis

Professor Charmaine Nelson fuses past with present with her groundbreaking research that explores Black history through art. Here, she profiles 19th-century sculptor Mary Edmonia Lewis.

To celebrate Black History Month, UMass Amherst is highlighting Black Americans and the Arts—past, present, and future—by exploring the robust history of Black creativity on campus and how it informs our unique and celebrated arts programming and academics today.

Charmaine A. Nelson
Charmaine A. Nelson's research explores Black diasporic art and visual culture.

Provost professor of art history Charmaine Nelson fuses the past and present with her groundbreaking research that explores Black history through art. On the heels of her recent $2.65 million Mellon grant announcement, UMass asked Nelson to explore African Americans in the arts in a way that was meaningful in the context of her research.

Nelson chose to profile 19th-century sculptor Mary Edmonia Lewis: a tenacious, extraordinarily talented, and resilient artist often overlooked by art history. Meet Lewis below. 

Although established in her own day, the celebrated American sculptor Mary Edmonia Lewis fell into obscurity for decades in the twentieth century. Lewis’s erasure from art history speaks to the neglect of women artists of color. With great intelligence and tenacity, the artist created a space for herself within the competitive world of 19th-century neoclassical sculpture, embarking on a career at a time when its ranks were filled almost exclusively with upper-class, white men. 

In the 1850s, when the majority of African Americans in the US were still in bondage, Lewis—who was born in 1844 of Indigenous and African ancestry—decided to become an artist. To the average white American—even to sympathetic abolitionists—Lewis’s dream would have seemed preposterous. Yet, she became an international superstar with a studio in Rome and royal patronage on both sides of the Atlantic. Lewis was also one of a handful of US-born people of color to partake in the Grand Tour. 

Understanding the improbability of Lewis’s stunning accomplishments entails a recognition of the unclothed human body as the focal point of neoclassical sculpture. The body required a raison d’être or narrative structure to justify its bare state. Through the austere abstraction of white marble and the use of religious, ideal, and ancient themes, unclothed bodies were transformed into art: nudes supposedly fit for intellectual contemplation. Both pathways of study, studying cadavers in medical school and life drawing classes in art academies, were off-limits to women and people of color at the time. Regardless, Lewis’s extant sculptures demonstrate a clear progression in her hard-won mastery of the human form. 

"Hiawatha" by Mary Edmonia Lewis.
"Hiawatha" (1868) by Mary Edmonia Lewis

Mentored by an older brother, she was sent to study at Oberlin College in the early 1860s, where early signs of her artistic abilities were revealed in a pencil sketch of "The Muse Urania" (1862), a wedding gift for a classmate. Later after relocating to Boston, Lewis encountered an abolitionist hub and garnered support and patronage. Her first studio was in the Studio Building on 89 Tremont Street where she welcomed patrons such as Maria Weston Chapman, editor of the anti-slavery journal The Non-Resistant, and the activist and writer Lydia Maria Child. Boston also provided Lewis with access to other professional black artists like the African Canadian landscape painter Edward Mitchell Bannister. Both Bannister and Lewis exhibited portraits of the martyred, northern, white abolitionist hero, Robert Gould Shaw, who died in 1863 while leading the first all-black regiment in the Civil War.

With money earned from the sale of a small bust of Shaw, Lewis purchased passage to Europe. After visiting London, Paris, and Florence, Lewis arrived in Rome in early 1866, where she established a studio. The author Henry James soon lumped Lewis into his disparagingly named "white, marmorean flock," a loosely affiliated group of expatriate women artists. 

James, the sculptor William Wetmore Story, and other white men were clearly jealous and weary of these independent women. They had reason to be. Each woman, in her way, defied the claustrophobic norms of sex and gender to embark upon professional artistic careers in a foreign country and, in many cases, to reject hetero-normative social mores—such as marriage and motherhood—altogether. 

But while Lewis was often described as an "exotic" member of "the flock," her class and race also positioned her as an outsider. While her wealthy, white peers could prioritize artistic ambition over patronage and sales, once in Rome, Lewis began sculpting copies of canonical artworks to sell to tourists for her upkeep. Indeed, correspondence between Lewis and others demonstrates that she was often in dire financial straits. However, against the vigorous disapproval of conditional supporters, she embarked upon her first original works. "Morning of Liberty (Forever Free)" (1867) is an ambitious two-figure sculpture of a standing black man and a kneeling, prayerful black woman celebrating their emancipation. 

"The Death of Cleopatra" (1876) by Mary Edmonia Lewis
"The Death of Cleopatra" (1876) by Mary Edmonia Lewis

Lewis’s crowning success was "Death of Cleopatra" (1876), the African queen who, by the 19th century, had come to symbolize the Black Diaspora. Displayed at the 1876 ‘Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition’, Lewis’s composition and narrative choice surpassed those of her peers, such as William Wetmore Story, who had depicted Cleopatra contemplating suicide. 

In the aftermath of the Civil War (1861-65), newly freed African Americans hoped to be embraced fully as citizens of their nation. Instead, they saw their government and fellow white citizens actively working to restrict their rights through legislation, violence, and terror. Amid the violent failure of ‘Reconstruction’, Lewis’ "Cleopatra" was shockingly and graphically dead, and the audience made to witness the slackening body of a fresh corpse on the throne. Lewis' ground-breaking and realistic rendering prophesied the stylistic shift towards modernism and the move of the center of the Western art world to Paris. 

While the decline of neoclassicism sent most of Lewis’s white peers home to the US, the thought of returning to a nation where the recent gains of emancipation were being openly challenged must have seemed incomprehensible to Lewis. Her veritable disappearance in this period was a product of the fading popularity of neoclassicism, but also of her lack of a contemporaneous archivist and biographer that many of her white peers had. It is unclear when Lewis moved to London, but it is there that she died on September 17, 1907, and was buried in St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery in Kensal Green. 

A revived interest in Lewis' work is justified not only by her obvious artistic talent and achievements, but by her much-deserved rise in a racist (art)world where all of the odds were stacked against her. As the first black or indigenous American, of either sex, to achieve professional status and international acclaim as a sculptor, Lewis was no doubt a beacon for many of the artists of color who followed in her footsteps.