Mary Edmonia Lewis was a sculptor in America at a time when it was difficult for any woman to be a sculptor, and significantly more difficult for a black woman to do so. Author Kirsten Pai Buick, author of the book Child of the Fire, about Edmonia Lewis, says that Edmonia was “the first documented woman of African and Native American descent to work abroad as an artist.”
She lived from 1844 to 1907 and studied at Oberlin College in Ohio. She received assistance in obtaining an education from her older brother, Samuel, as well as from abolitionists.
She worked in a style called neo-classical. Classical art means Greek, so think of white marble sculptures of standing figures, or busts (just the head, or head and shoulders). Neo means new, so neo-classical means that the style of making sculptures in the Greek style had came back and was new again.
One of her largest works is called the Death of Cleopatra, (image above) and was for years in Chicago, with a connection to where I live.
Edmonia “Lewis’s best-known work in her lifetime was the Death of Cleopatra, a twelve-foot tall sculpture weighing two tons that took four years to execute. Exhibited at the 1876 Centennial, Cleopatra was called ‘the grandest statute in the exposition.’ Today it is one of her many lost works.” (Heller, Women Artists, p. 87)
Except that it’s not lost, it’s in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, on the 3rd floor, I went there and saw it myself.
You can read the rest of the story of The Death of Cleopatra in this article that I wrote:
For further reading: Child of the Fire by Kirstin Pai Buick.