©2008, Oleg Lyutov.

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Riding the crest of the neoclassical revival in the 1870's, sculptress Edmonia Lewis attracted wide notice in a field generally dominated by men. She was, in fact, the first African American sculptor to achieve international distinction. Born sometime in the 1840's in Greenbush, New York, Edmonia's father was an African American servant and her mother a Chippewa Indian. her childhood was a nomadic one as she was raised mostly by her mother's tribe.

Around 1860 Edmonia traveled to Boston in hopes of a musical career. She became interested in sculpting. The neoclassical sculptor Edward Brackett became her mentor, and she soon created a well-received medallion portraying the abolitionist martyr, John Brown. Lewis' first exhibition in 1864 featured a bust of Col. Robert Shaw, leader of a Negro regiment, of which a hundred copies were eventually sold.

In 1867, Miss Lewis set off for Rome where she found true fame for her work. Rome, at this time, was a Mecca for American sculptors, many of them women. The Greek revival was reaching its height and Lewis' work began to sell for large sums. By 1873 she had won two $50,000 commissions. Her studio became a fashionable place for tourists.

In 1873, Edmonia returned to America and exhibitions of her work were held in San Francisco and San José. Over 1600 visitors saw her work at these displays and the San Jose Library canvassed for subscriptions to purchase her Bust of Lincoln (1871). Two other pieces, Awake (1872) and Asleep (1871) were purchased in San Jose at this time by Mrs. Sarah Knox. These two studies of cherubic infants eventually found their way into the Library's collection as well.

Last know record of Miss Lewis is in 1885 in Rome where she signed a petition protesting U.S. taxes on works of foreign artists. By this time the vogue of neoclassicism was fading and Miss Lewis had passed from public notice. Art historians can only surmise that she died around 1890 perhaps in Italy or new England. Nonetheless Edmonia Lewis' place in history, as the first non-white American to receive international recognition as a sculptor, remains secure.

Exhibit Gallery

These three sculptures by Edmonia Lewis are on display in the California Room at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library. Select a sculpture to see a larger photo: